Even with the departures of three starters along the offensive line from last year’s squad, the Tech football team expects to be better up front as the 2010 season gets underway. With two redshirt seniors leading the way and several talented underclassmen expected to contribute after strong play in fall camp, the Jackets feature talent and depth at every position along the line and will look to improve their play after a season that saw the team rush for 295.4 yards per game and pass for 151.6 yards per game.
“They’ve worked real hard, and they’ve prepared themselves pretty well for what’s expected of them,” said Co-Offensive Line Coach Mike Sewak.
For the first time since Head Coach Paul Johnson arrived, the Jackets have decent depth along the line. This is perhaps most evident at the offensive tackle positions, where Tech has three capable options to fill two starting spots in redshirt senior Austin Barrick, redshirt junior Nick Claytor and redshirt sophomore Phil Smith.
All three tackles saw time both as reserves and in the starting lineup last season. Barrick started much of the season on the right side before going down with an injury; Smith took over but suffered an injury of his own, breaking his ankle during the ACC Championship Game and Barrick returned to start the Orange Bowl. Claytor, meanwhile, started five games as a freshman in 2008 and was a key reserve last season after undergoing surgery.
Entering this season, all three have recovered from their injuries and will see prominent playing time, spelling one another when necessary.
“Nick, for the most part, plays left tackle, Austin [mostly] plays right tackle, and I can play both. We’ll have some sort of…three-way rotation,” Smith said.
The ability to rotate the tackles in and out for various situations will help to keep Barrick, Claytor and Smith fresh during games.
“It’s huge, knowing that you can go full speed the whole time and not necessarily [have to] save anything for the rest of the game…It’s good to know that if you’re tired, you can get a break,” Smith said.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Tech is at the guard positions, where the Jackets must replace a pair of two-year starters. Left guard Cord Howard graduated, and right guard Joseph Gilbert, transferred to play for the school’s new FCS football team.
Tech will go with redshirt freshman Will Jackson at left guard and redshirt sophomore Omoregie Uzzi on the right side. Uzzi has experience from last season, having played in 12 games last season, but he served as a reserve and did not make any starts. Jackson, though, will be starting his first game.
“It’s a challenge for our guys. It’ll be the first time [Jackson and Uzzi] walk onto that field as starters, and everything’s going to go so much faster…[but] I’m to the point now where I think they’re mature enough to handle the situation,” Sewak said.
The one seemingly certain strength for Tech along the interior line is at the center position, where redshirt senior center Sean Bedford returns to anchor the line. Bedford was named to the All-ACC first team last season and was on the all-conference preseason squad for 2010.
It appeared that depth at center might be an issue since Bedford’s experienced backup, Dan Voss, completed his eligibility after last season. Instead, redshirt freshman Jay Finch made a strong push and nearly unseated Bedford as the starter, echoing a trend that has been common throughout the line this offseason.
“Finch came with the purpose of being with a starter too. Our young guys are just as hungry as our old guys. [It] breeds competition, and you get better when you have some depth—when you have some guys who are willing to…put in the extra work to one-up each other, and our guys are willing to do that,” Sewak said.
Sewak noted that Bedford and the other starting linemen will be able to offer guidance to Jackson and Uzzi as they enter starting roles for the first time.
“They’re still going to have some hiccups; we all agree on that…[but] Bedford should be in there to give them a little bit of a calming influence, and all the tackles have started, so maybe they’ll [help out],” Sewak said.
Naturally, blocking techniques have remained in focus for all of the linemen, young and old. The nature of Tech’s offense relies on quick and precise blocks from all of the linemen to ensure that holes open up in the defense.
“We’re a vertical run team, so we’re coming off the ball. We’re not sitting and reacting—we’re making them react to us, so there’s a lot of moving parts,” Sewak said.
Several of Tech’s linemen have sought out extra time to work with the coaches to spend more time studying the offense and working to improve. In previous interviews, Bedford has discussed the increasing number of times that younger linemen such as Jackson have come to him to discuss blocking techniques and assignments.