RT: Austin Barrick, Zach Fraysier, Clyde Yandell, Jay Finch
RG: Cordaro Howard, Zach Krish, Michael Johnson
C: Dan Voss, Sean Bedford, Nick McRae, Raymond Beno
LG: Joseph Gilbert, Omoregie Uzzi, Will Jackson
LT: Nick Claytor, Brad Sellers, Phil Smith, Antonio Foster
Though not to the same extend as the defensive line, the offensive line heads into the 2009 season with some significant losses in personnel. The four graduating players are Andrew Gardner, A.J. Smith, David Brown and Andrew Folkner. Between the four of them Tech lost 32 games played (18 starts) from the 2008 season. Those minutes played will need to be picked up in 2009. It likely won't come from true freshmen but it was an important year to restock the cupboard with new talent. Let's first look back on what is being replaced.
The conversation about the offensive line, not just this past year, but over the past few years, always began with Andrew Gardner. But it wasn't always the case that Andrew was given such consideration. In the beginning, Andrew's name was always mentioned in connection with perhaps Tech's most lauded commit of all time – Calvin Johnson, a high school teammate of Andrew. It was easy to see why Gardner would be overshadowed; Calvin was a rare 5-star commit for GT and Andrew was an unrated 2-star. The Tech coaches all went over to Calvin's house on the night of January 12, 2004 where they received the good news that Johnson would attend GT. Gardner "quietly" committed to Tech later on that same night. At 6'6" and 250 pounds, Gardner seemed like a project. Some even suggested that he was brought in as a favor or as an incentive to reel in the star wide receiver.
Andrew worked well in shadows though. He toiled away in obscurity as a redshirt in 2004. In that time he beefed up and refined his game. By the next season he was thrust into the starting role for the entire season in the all-important left tackle position – a job he'd never relinquish the rest of his career at GT. He was named first-team Freshman All-America but that still wasn't good enough for some. One criticism was that not many freshman played offensive line around the country and that the honor wasn't a big deal. The remaining critics were quieted by the 2006 season when Andrew again started every game at left tackle and was named Honorable Mention for the All-ACC team.
In both 2007 and 2008, Andrew not only anchored the Tech offensive line, but he anchored the first team All-ACC team in both seasons. Entering the 2008 season he was named one of Tech's Tri-Captain group that included Darryl Richard and Michael Johnson. Nine games into the season though - Andrew's Tech career came to an end. The long anticipated Florida State victory was his last. A shoulder injury that would require surgery finally did what no other teammate could do since 2004 – keep him out of the starting lineup.
Now it all starts over again for Andrew. Scout.com again rates him as a 2-star NFL prospect. He's listed as the #15 offensive tackle for the upcoming draft. Perhaps he's again being undersold. But Andrew has proven to work well in those conditions! Tech fans wish him well in his pursuit for an NFL career. He now has a huge following.
Though David Brown and Andrew Gardner ended up in the same position – starting lineman who had their seasons cut short in 2008 abruptly and about the same time – they didn't start off anywhere close to each other. Andrew was a below-the-radar local offensive prospect who was courted by other programs like Wake Forest. Brown was a highly rated national defensive recruit from Alabama with offers from just about everywhere.
A 3-star and #26 raked defensive tackle, David committed to GT seemingly out of the blue. He was thought to be favoring Alabama or Notre Dame or maybe UGA as a longer shot. Coach Chan Gailey and crew got David to visit and, as they were prone to do, closed on him very well. With visits to Bama and ND already in the books for him, David wanted to give GT a look and next thing we know, he's a Yellow Jacket.
David has had a very odd and up-and-down career at GT marked by seemingly constant position changes. Starting out at defense, David redshirted his first season. In 2005 he became ill and basically sat out another full year. In 2006 he finally saw the field, but it was as a tight end – after moving to the position earlier in the week. In 2007 it was even tougher to find him on the field – he was sporting two jersey numbers that he'd potentially switch into during a particular game. David the OL was #55. David the TE was #82.
So where in the world would David fit in with Gailey gone and Coach Paul Johnson now coaching the team? Tight end was out of the equation, so it was time for David to settle in at just offensive line once and for all. An injury kept him out of some early practices, so it looked like, ‘here we go again' with David. But by the time the season started he had worked his way into a starting role at right tackle. A week before Gardner's last game, a medical condition ended the season and career for Brown. The Yellow Jackets had to head into their last five games without both tackles who began the season in the starting lineup.
Next up is A.J. Smith: the king of transformation. It's so eye-popping – he's the only one I'll do this for:
Austin Jude came in as 225-pound defensive end and left as a 305-pound offensive lineman. The move to OL came early in his career – before the end of his redshirt season. He did a little bit of a David Brown impression by playing some TE in 2006 but it was soon right back to OT. AJ started in six games in 2007 and one other (Clemson – for Joseph Gilbert at guard) in 2008. After playing tackle for most of his career, Coach Johnson used Smith mostly as a guard in his final year. The move opened up the tackle position for Brown but meant a new backup role for AJ. A recurring elbow injury also kept AJ from getting a foothold back into a starting role. Nevertheless, Smith was an important cog in the offense. He was used heavily in the OL rotation and was a valuable contributor – particularly late in the season as injuries piled up for the line.
In addition to what will be missed from AJ on the field, his family has also been a huge fixture around the program (and The Hive) for so many years. His mother, Karen, had an active role on the team and headed up many events for parents, players and fans. His brother, Morgan, is a manager on the team. And his father, Don, is just cool. Okay, do I anticipate them reading this part? Perhaps!
Finally, Andrew Folkner is a walk-on who'll be graduating. He started off as a defensive lineman but moved to offense. He backed up Dan Voss at center in 2008 and saw time in five games this past season. He also participated in three games in 2007.
Spring Practice Report:
Because of season-ending injuries to both senior starters Andrew Gardner and David Brown, the starting group heading into spring will look the same as it has for the last four games of the 2008 season. The two departing tackles were replaced by Austin Barrick and Nick Claytor. The starting center and guard combination will stay the same as it was all of last season. That kind of continuity should be a big help as Coach Johnson's offense at Tech moves into its second season.
Two of the returning starters are going to be seniors: right guard Cord Howard and center Dan Voss. Thanks to the success of the running game last season (#1 in ACC, #3 nationally), not only was Gardner recognized on the All-ACC team, but Cord Howard was a member of the second team offensive line. Cord briefly put his name in the hat for the NFL draft so his draft prospectus could be evaluated but withdrew before the deadline to do so. Howard took over the starting spot at right tackle in 2007 for the last six games where he protected the blind side of southpaw quarterback Taylor Bennett. He has started every game since except Coach Johnson's staff moved Cord closer to the ball. Cord started every game this past season at left guard except for one game where he started at RG. I don't anticipate any serious challenges to Cord's position this spring. I think you can pencil him in the lineup for 2009.
The other senior starter is Dan Voss, at center. He too seems a safe bet to be starting in 2009, however, off-season surgery will keep him out of spring practice. Like Cord, in 2007 Voss found a starting position due to another player's injury and has started ever since. It was also at a position he did not play in 2008. Dan moved in as a starter when a Nathan McManus injury ended his season and career. Matt Rhodes moved from left guard to right guard and Voss held on to the left side for the balance of the 2007 season. In 2008 after long-time center starter Kevin Tuminello graduated, Coach Johnson's staff looked to Dan to move in there and run what they consider to be the most important position on the line.
Redshirt sophomore Joseph Gilbert manned the right guard position for all but one game last season. He'll be the favorite once again as Tech heads into spring drills. Spring could bring on some interesting competition at his spot though. Despite starting all of last season a much anticipated player in Omoregie Uzzi sheds his redshirt and gets into the mix at the guard position as well. Uzzi was the highest rated recruit in the 2008 class for Georgia Tech. If Uzzi shows he's worth of a starting role, I think the coaches may move some players around to fit in the best five players if indeed that includes Gilbert and Uzzi. Perhaps a current starter at the tackle position could become more vulnerable. There's a long way to go before the season starts so a number of things could happen before the first game. The increased competition along the line should be a welcomed change from a year ago when it wasn't clear if the Jackets had enough good options to fill in a respectable starting offensive line.
Others rounding out the depth chart at guard include walk-ons Zach Krish and Michael Johnson (yes another by the same name). Both have good size and the coaches won't hesitate to use them in spring to play plenty of snaps. Krish saw action in four games last season.
With Dan Voss out for the spring at center, it's unclear if the coaches will go with at this time. It doesn't seem as likely that they'd move one of the current guards over – the numbers aren't really there at guard to be able to do that and there doesn't seem to be someone at guard who has cross-trained much at center, as Voss had the previous year. Walk-on Sean Bedford will likely be listed at starter when the practices begin but, as was the case at guard, there is another highly anticipated player, Nick McRae, who is coming off of a redshirt season who'll be eager to show that he belongs in the mix. Bedford played against Mississippi State and Miami last season, so the coaches know he can hold his own. McRae is one of the better center prospects Tech has signed in a while – and Tech has had many good ones over the years. Dan's injury creates a big opening for Nick to show what he can do. The question will be - has he made enough progress in his redshirt season to take on that challenge.
As mentioned above, Austin Barrick and Nick Claytor are returning starters at tackle in regards to how the lineup looked at the end of last season with injuries to Gardner and Brown. Claytor, one of the top overall prospects (#6) in the state of Georgia two years ago, redshirted his first year at Tech and eventually started by the end of the season. He started to deliver on some his promise as a recruit this past season with some memorable blocks in key games for the Yellow Jackets. He could be tough to unseat at left tackle for the foreseeable future. It will be tough to find someone to match not only his size 6'6", 305 pounds, but also his intensity on the field.
Austin Barrick was a true surprise to see as a starter in 2008. After all, he spent last spring as a running back (a-back) in Coach Johnson's offense. Formerly a tight end, there really wasn't an ideal position for Austin when Tech switched to the triple-option. After determining that a-back wasn't the answer, Barrick was switched to the line in fall. After line injuries mounted, Austin was thrust into the role as starter. If there is one spot on the line that is truly ripe for a challenge it's here. In Austin's favor though is the fact that he has already shown he can do it. Though undersized for a prototypical tackle, Barrick showed he was worthy over a four-game stretch, including the win over Georgia. I see the competition from too many good players at center and guard as being a bigger threat for Barrick versus the competition that would come from his fellow tackles.
The other tackles in the mix this spring include: Zach Fraysier, Clyde Yandell, Brad Sellers, and Phil Smith. Sellers, now a senior, like many other current offensive linemen, has played a number of other positions. He came in as a defensive lineman, moved to tight end and now is cracking the depth chart as an offensive lineman. He'll begin the spring at #2 tackle but will likely be pushed by the others, so he'll have to have a good spring to hold onto his current position.
Zach Fraysier and Phil Smith are both very interesting future candidates for the tackle position. Fraysier, in just a season, has received some good attention. He came to Tech as a preferred walk-on and now seems as much in the mix as any other scholarship lineman. He has good size (6'3", 275) and plays with tenacity. If he had been an inch or two taller, he may have had a few more offers to play ball. Phil Smith has the total look of a typical tackle. At 6'6", 290 pounds, the redshirt freshman is an imposing figure but he also is said to have good feet and speed and should be a good long-term fit in this offense.
Finally, Clyde Yandell is the Benjamin Button of the group – he's a curious case. He entered school the same time as Claytor and Gilbert and initially it looked like he was going to be the one to watch in this group. He won reps over Claytor in early fall practices, is built well, and seemed physically ready for the college game. There was talk all season of the possibility of pulling his redshirt because he was needing to get on the field. Since the 2007 season, he just kept falling in the depth chart. He was passed by most scholarship guy on the line and a couple of walk-ons as well. It's not certain exactly what's held him back this past year but clearly the coaches see him as someone who had more to show before he was going to see more playing time. Hopefully this spring Clyde will put his game together and again show the promise he showed when he first stepped on the field as a freshman. A healthy guy put together like Yandell is and with his potential should be able to find his way into more than the four games he entered in 2008. If he's on his game he could make this a very interesting spring at the tackle spot.
All in all the offensive line has been remarkable for the past few years. In the 2007 season the line led the way for the top rushing offense in the conference under Coach Gailey. They lost a super group of linemen after the season in Rhodes, McManus and Tuminello. They played under a new head coach and position coaches, suffered through injuries to both senior starters on the line – including a two-time first team all-conference member, and didn't miss a beat. This patch-work group lead helped Tech lead the way in the conference again, was third in the nation and helped produce the player of the year in Jonathan Dwyer at running back. It's exciting to see this group coming back with a year under their belt in a great offensive system. Throw into the mix some high-ceiling guys coming off redshirt seasons to push them to be even better. I suspect losing your leader in Voss for the spring will make for some less-than-perfect practices at times but in the big picture, the coaches will get to cross-train some guys to be ready to fill in where and when needed in the 2009 season. It's tough to be anything other than optimistic about this group for spring and into the next season.
Who GT signed:
Home Town (High School): Knoxville, TN (Farragut High School)
Other offers included: Kentucky, Louisville, Mississippi, North Carolina State, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, West Virginia
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Todd Spencer
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 26 (OG)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Will Jackson is the highest rated of the four linemen Tech signed in February. He has the size to play either tackle or guard in college but will probably get a look at guard initially. Will had offers from all over the country. The one I was most concerned about what the one he didn't have – Tennessee. Tech really benefited by not having to deal with that potential obstacle.
Will was faithful to his guidelines in recruiting and didn't lament the offers he didn't get. About the Vols Jackson told Chris Layton three weeks before deciding on GT, "It's hard to say. If they were to offer before I make my decision then that's one thing, but like I've said all along I don't plan on playing the waiting game. I feel the schools looking at me right now genuinely want me and I would like to go to a school that generally wants me to play."
Since committing to the Yellow Jackets, Will has been a model recruit. He teamed up with the guy who helped secure his commitment – quarterback Jordan Luallen – and called on other recruits to try and build a great class.
In some years, I could picture a player like Will coming in and earning early playing time but with improving depth and a coach whose default position is to redshirt, especially at OL, he may take a year before he sees the field for GT.
Will has also shown his ability as a writer! After his official visit to GT he provided our readers with his Official Visit Journal.
"Will Jackson is a terrific offensive lineman who has great footwork. He is a very strong blocker and aggressive. He plays with a nasty streak and has excellent technique. He has played tackle throughout high school, but will move to the interior and play guard at the next level."
Uncredited Scout.com Analyst:
"One of the most technically sound linemen in the nation. Executes all blocks to perfection. Very agile with good knee bend. Devastating run blocker who blocks whistle to whistle. He finishes every block. Gets to the second and third levels and always has a hat on a body. Plays tackle, but likely projects as a guard at the next level. Shows outstanding footwork and pulls well."
Home Town (High School): Valdosta, GA (Valdosta High School)
Other offers included: Florida State, Indiana, Michigan State, Miami, Oklahoma State, Tennessee
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Todd Spencer
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 27 (OG)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
The connection between Tennessee and Georgia Tech in this season's border wars shows up again in the battle for another offensive lineman. In the case of Will Jackson, Tennessee didn't extend an offer before Will was ready to make a decision. It probably served Will well because he didn't have to make another choice later on after they fired their head coach Phillip Fulmer. In the case of Antonio Foster, he was already committed to Tennessee when Fulmer was let go. With Tech being Foster's second choice all along, the absence of Fulmer moved GT up to his top spot. Antonio switched his commitment to GT within 24 hours of Tennessee's decision to let their head coach go.
Foster told Burke Hayes how he felt about Fulmer at the time, "I kind of felt like he was undeserving of what happened, especially since he had been there for 17 years. I really liked him."
Another positive aspect about picking GT is that Foster would now be even closer to his family. Antonio showed a sense of humor when describing how that might play out when speaking to Dale McDuffie. "Most of my family lives in Atlanta and they will not have to go far to see me play. That is another huge plus in changing to Georgia Tech. I was joking with my Mom and said don't pull an American Pie moment and just show up, you have to call me and let me know you are coming to see me."
Foster, like Jackson, is physically built to play college ball right away. Unless he comes out and dominates in early practices though, he could be faced with a redshirt season in year one. If you read what all of the scouts have to say about Antonio below, you'll see there are some high expectations for what he's capable of doing at Tech. Tech coaches did a nice job of continuing to work hard in recruiting Foster and it paid off by allowing them to make a rare steal from a traditional SEC power.
"Foster keeps his head on a swivel and never takes a play off. He plays assignment football, and if there's no one in his space to block, he'll help double a defender with a teammate. He's an instinctive blocker in that he has a great feel for when the ball carrier has beaten the man that Foster is blocking, and Foster will release his man and move to the next level to pick up a second block."
"Foster played tackle in high school, but he is best for most programs as an inside guy. Size and length are not big issues for offensive linemen in GT's system, so he could be a versatile guy there. His strength is strength and then run blocking. He needs to work on his footwork and holding his blocks longer."
"Foster only started playing Offensive Tackle last year, but his play on the field suggests otherwise. His background is on defense and this will most certainly serve him well in Coach Paul Johnson's scheme. He has excellent feet and has a quick and controlled first step. Has the quickness to cut DL off on the down block and the power to get movement, but he may actually be at his best when he is escaping to second-level defenders and blocking on screens. Looks very comfortable in space and continues to be an effective blocker downfield. Overall, Foster possesses outstanding athleticism for a young man standing 6-4 285."
Home Town (High School): Newnan, GA (Newnan High School)
Other offers included: Air Force, Army, Navy, Mississippi, Navy, Southern Mississippi, Troy, Wake Forest
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Charles Kelly
Scout.com Stars: **
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 65 (OG)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
When asking about Beno the first things out of people's mouth are 1) that he's "nasty" on the field and 2) Tech got a real steal when they landed him. As ratings go he's the lowest rated of the four OL by Scout.com but I wouldn't put much weight into that. He came on late and made a big impression as a high school senior. He was selected to the North-South all-star game and made a big impression there. He was also selected as First-team AJC All-State Class AAAAA. So although he came on late in recruiting terms, he has earned a number of honors and some solid scholarship offers to indicate he's a significant recruit.
Beno told Rusty Mansell this about his experience in the North-South all-star game, "It was a great experience all around. Playing with these guys out here you will see what to expect on the next level. Practices went great; it was a great group of guys to practice with. The experience down here will last me a lifetime. I know I will remember this week and game a long time."
When the Tech coaches build Beno up properly in the weight room to go along with his natural quickness, it should serve Raymond well in this offense. He'll likely redshirt this coming season but I think he'll easily overcome the one biggest knock on him which is his height. I see him as a big contributor down the line as an interior lineman for GT.
"Beno is a leader and that is what jumps out to me immediately when watching him. He works hard, he leads by example, and he makes those around him better. If he would have been a little taller, then he may have been a national recruit. He has great leg drive, he drives guys off the ball, and he finishes off blocks exceptionally well. GT is getting a steal in Beno."
"Beno is blessed with is good feet and athleticism. Beno is not an overpowering blocker, but he gets good push, because he moves so quickly. He attacks the second level (linebackers) like a fullback might, and he has little trouble changing direction to get a helmet on someone. He's quick enough that he catches several players off guard, because they're not used to being hit that soon after the snap by a lineman."
Home Town (High School): Kennesaw, GA (Kennesaw Mountain High School)
Other offers included: Central Florida,East Carolina, Louisville, Middle Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina State
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Brian Bohannon
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 40 (OG)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Finch is a former tight end turned offensive lineman. One of the attractions for the Tech coaches is that even as Finch has added weight to his frame, he has continued to carry his weight well. Once he was able to show Tech coaches live how he moved, he was rewarded with an offer. Jay really stood out at Tech's camp last summer. He's clearly one of the faster offensive line prospects I've ever seen at a camp or combine.
Jay, like Will Jackson, had a mature view of the recruiting process. He didn't wait around for others to come calling. He based his decision around the teams that showed him they were serious about bring him aboard. "I was talking to Georgia but they never offered me and that wasn't really the place for me so I ended up canceling going to their one-day camp to go to Georgia Tech's," Finch told me after committing to GT. "All of the places I had offers from were the ones I was really focusing on. I mean, schools by now would have offered if they were sincerely interested. So I was focusing on those schools."
Tech fans can already appreciate his dislike for the team from Athens. "Well, put it this way, you know how people say, 'last one in is a rotten egg?' Well, we say, 'last one in is a bulldog.' We were doing that at camp and it kind of stuck and that's how I feel about it," said Finch. Finch also joked to me that he'd have another motivation when playing UGA in the future. "I get to hit Bryce Ros (former teammate and UGA 2008 commit) for the next four or five years."
Clearly, Finch was a breath of fresh air in interviews. He never shied away from giving a good quote. His personality will be a great fit for the locker room and his athleticism will be a great fit for the field.
From his interview with Jared Kimmel in January, Finch gave a clue as to where he could end up playing in Tech's offense. "(Co-offensive line) Coach Sewak said he starts everybody at center to see if they can snap and then it goes from there. Coach Bohannon says I'll probably play tackle because they want the quicker guys on the ends to get to the linebackers."
We've seen it before when the tall, lanky lineman gets to campus without a lot of fanfare. Perhaps Finch will be the newest incarnation of Andrew Gardner or A.J. Smith. He'll need some time to put on the weight but I see Jay with as much upside as any lineman in this class.
"Finch: Finch is a good inside lineman. He can pull, he can pass block, and he can get to the second level. Playing tight end in the past shows he is athletic and he will fit in well in Paul Johnson's offensive blocking scheme. He is very sound in technique as well."
The one who got away:
Nolan MacMillan Losing out on MacMillan to Iowa was a tough blow. He could have pushed this offensive line class from very good to one of the best groups signed in recent history. Even with numbers getting tight, the coaches still wanted Nolan onboard to give the class five linemen. When he didn't get onboard, there wasn't a backup plan. The coaches didn't want to reach for someone else just to get to five.
Other linemen in the mix along the way with GT and held offers at one time or another included: Alex Bullard (Notre Dame), David Harding (Duke), Ty Howle (Penn State), Wesley Johnson (Vanderbilt), Corey Linsley (Ohio State), Aubrey Phillips (Florida State), Kevin Revis (Tennessee).
This was a very good class for GT in 2009. They signed a couple of highly touted prospects and a couple of guys not rated as highly but ones the analysts seemed to like once they had the chance to take a look at them. It was important to bring in some more numbers in the class and with four solid prospects, coaches met that goal. Adding MacMillan would have topped off the class nicely but it didn't work out that way. I think the coaches have done a great job of brining in guys who will be fine cogs in this offense system.
The other thing that the coaches have done that makes me feel they are heading in the right direction is the focus they have put into the walk-on program. If there are more guys on the way like Zach Fraysier or Michael Johnson, then depth won't be a concern at OL for Tech again for a long time.
Seeing that Coach Johnson left Uzzi, McRae, Smith and Fraysier all on the bench last year to take a redshirt, it seems likely he'll try and do the same with this class. It is a luxury to be able to do so. At some point though, some kid will come along and be too good and too ready to play right out of the gate for the coaches to be able to redshirt them. Could that player be in this quartet?
Thanks to Scott Kennedy, Andrew Bone, Chris Layton, Burke Hayes, Dale McDuffie, Chad Simmons, Rusty Mansell, Jared Kimmel and Rod Mackenzie for contributions to this article!