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 did 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 Paul Johnson's offense at Georgia 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, offseason 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 worthy 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 Mike 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 who 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 needed to get on the field. Since the 2007 season, he just kept falling in the depth chart. He was passed by most scholarship guys 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.
Current Depth Chart:
RT: Austin Barrick, Clyde Yandell, Mike Johnson, Antonio Foster
RG: Cordaro Howard, Zach Krish, Nick McRae
C: Dan Voss/Sean Bedford, Zach Fraysier, Raymond Beno
LG: Joseph Gilbert, Omoregie Uzzi, Will Jackson
LT: Nick Claytor/Brad Sellers, Phil Smith, Jay Finch
Review, Preview, and Predictions:
The Georgia Tech offensive line in 2009 will be much deeper than lines in the recent past. It is also not top heavy with sure starters like in past years with guys like Andrew Gardner, Nate McManus, Kevin Tuminello, and Matt Rhodes. Spring didn't do much to solve all of the questions on the depth chart. "We've probably got twelve guys fighting for five spots," Coach Paul Johnson said last week.
"Last year, we tried to piece things together," Coach Johnson said about the offensive line. I think he's a little more comfortable with the situation heading into this season in terms of depth, competition, and how well the line has picked up their assignments allowing them to perform without having to think as much. Coach Johnson added, "On the offensive line, two things. We're going to have depth, which will help us, and I think they can play faster. We were at times not good up there last year. We're still going to be fairly young up there but I think we got some competition. Basically we return all five starters from the last six games and there's a chance two or three of them will get beat out. There's a chance we could have the same five starters and there's a chance we won't. It won't be because they're hurt. That in itself will be better. It's competition. We'll be able to play more guys and keep them fresh."
Spring camp saw three of the projected starters miss all or a significant portion of the practices. Because of the missed practices, the ones who did play received a lot of reps and were probably ready for a break by the end of the camp. Center Dan Voss and left tackle Nick Claytor both missed all of the camp. Because of that, both are listed as co-starters next to the guys who took their place in spring.
At center, former defensive walk-on Sean Bedford started for Voss and another former defensive lineman, Brad Sellers, took over for Claytor. Coach Johnson hasn't allowed the guys, even the more established ones, get to comfortable with the idea that they are going to start. "This year we don't know who's going to be first string at any position, said Voss after the first fall practice. "It gets us excited for it and we'll get some good competition to be number one. I think that will produce a better offensive line."
Not only did spring build up more competition, it also gave the replacements some valuable experience in running the triple option. Bedford described for me during spring some things he looks for at the line before a play. "There're a lot of things to look for," said Bedford. "Obviously you have to look and see what the defensive tackles are doing. If you're trying to go right and you've got a nose guard right there it's obviously going to alter what you're trying to do. You have to coordinate with the guards there. Also you have to kind of see where the middle linebacker is – make some reads with the guards off of that and have the tackles call out the positions of the outside linebackers for you. You have to call out the blocking schemes and figure out what you are going to do from there. We call the front right away and then from there we go through our progressions and figure out where everyone is lined up and try to get the right play on the field after that." Bedford's efforts this spring were noticed by the coaching staff. "The Bedford kid works hard," Coach Johnson said last week.
Brad Sellers replaced Claytor and now finds himself in a fall battle for a starting spot. At right guard Cord Howard, a second team all-ACC selection last season, missed some practices at the end of camp as a precaution. He's fine now but Zach Krish, like Bedford – a former walk-on who now has a scholarship, performed very well in his place. Krish has a solid build and, like the others in spring, put in a lot of hard work in hot conditions without a lot of rest. That experience will serve Zach and the others well this fall.
The final two preseason starters are right tackle Austin Barrick and left guard Joseph Gilbert. Both guys had very different challenges in spring to their spots. Barrick, who went from A-back last season to starter, didn't have the challengers lined up against him as in the past. His backup Clyde Yandell was out for spring so Barrick's closest challenger was walk-on Michael Johnson. Gilbert on the other hand had to compete against Omoregie Uzzi, Tech's top rated player from the 2008 recruiting class. In both cases the incumbents held off the competition through spring and went into fall penciled in as starters.
Like Uzzi, I thought Nick McRae would mount a serious challenge in spring for a starting spot. McRae started off behind Bedford at center and was moved to guard where he is now third on the depth chart. After Monday's first practice, Dan Voss had this to say about McRae and his move to guard being permanent, "I think it is, at least permanent for this year. He might go back to center but he's played mostly guard in the spring and he started out at guard today. I think he can be a good guard. Maybe center wasn't for him. After I graduate and Shawn graduates maybe we'll need more depth at center and he'll move back to center."
Phil Smith and Zach Fraysier round out the current depth chart as the #3 left tackle and #3 center respectively.
As for the incoming freshmen, seeing that it takes some time to pickup the offense for linemen and that the depth is better this season, I see all of the freshmen redshirting this season. As has been the philosophy with Coach Johnson, center is considered the most important position. New players are tried out there first then moved further from the ball based on the coaches' impressions. Voss commented on the new class, "Right now we have three freshmen taking snaps at center. We have Will Jackson, Jay Finch and Beno. I'm not sure if any of them are going to have a better shot than the other. I think they'll all get a fair shot. I don't think right now that the coaches have a favorite."
For the crowd that thinks the passing numbers will show big improvement and attention this year, Voss admitted that the line could do a better job. "We know that the pass protection last year wasn't good enough," said Voss.
The air attack definitely can be improved on but it is still a run-first offense with passing being used to keep would-be tacklers honest. If teams are successful in making the offense become more balanced, the line will have to be ready to give Nesbitt more time to throw.
I'll give Voss the last word, "We really think Jonathan Dwyer should get Heisman attention this year and get player of the year again. The offensive line needs to step up and produce if that's going to happen. We need the pass protection to get better. If that happens then Josh and Bebe will get their numbers like they should. It all starts with the offensive line. It's hard to quantify how well the offensive line is doing except for the numbers that the players around us are getting. That's all we want as an offensive line is for the players around us to be All-ACC."