ATLANTA (Apr. 2) – They are now the pillars of Georgia Tech’s offensive line, but it wasn’t always that way for 6-6, 315-pound tackle Chris Brown and 6-4, 280-pound guard Brent Key.
Flash back to junior high: there’s Key getting cut from his first football team, and Brown, years away from even trying football, is playing the tuba.
The two Tech seniors have come a long way since then, and they lead the Yellow Jackets in Saturday’s Springfest Spring Scrimmage, beginning at 11 a.m. at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field.
Brown, an all-America candidate next fall, is a four-year starter at Tech despite the fact that he didn’t even begin playing football until his junior year at Augusta’s Butler High School.
“I had always played basketball, but as I got bigger, the coaches kept telling me that I could do good things in football, so finally I tried it,” said Brown, who used to sell concessions at The Master’s while in high school.
And before that, it was the band.
“I was in the band in junior high school,” said Brown, who is now taking an elective music course at Tech. “I played the tuba for three years. They needed a tuba player and I was the biggest guy around. But I got pretty good at it. No marching band, though; just the concert band.”
Key, on the other hand, did play football in junior high, but only after he got cut the first time he tried out for the team.
“The first day, they told us to go out for whatever position we wanted to play, so I tried out at quarterback,” Key recalled with a laugh. “They moved me to tight end and then to offensive line. I was so excited when I made the first cut, but when they posted the team after the final cut, my name wasn’t there. I was crushed.
“But halfway into spring practice, three players quit the team, so they called back me and two other guys.”
Key took advantage of his second chance to become an all-state player at Hewitt-Trussville High in Trussville, Ala., but he still was not highly recruited. Tech was the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship, and that was only after Key and his mother wrote letters to solicit college recruiters. Despite those humble beginnings, Key immediately became a starter at right guard after a red-shirt year and is a candidate for all-conference honors as he enters his senior season.
With 62 career starts between them, Brown and Key have been key cogs in Tech’s high-powered offense the last three years. Last fall, they helped the Jackets lead the nation in total offense and rank second in scoring. Behind the strength of the offensive line, Tech has ranked in the top two in the ACC in rushing the last two years despite numerous injuries to its running backs.
This spring, not only are Brown and Key blocking for a new quarterback as Tech seeks a replacement for Joe Hamilton, they are also working under a new offensive line coach in Mac McWhorter and playing with three new starters on the offensive line in senior center David Schmidgall (Clearwater, Fla.) and redshirt freshmen Clay Hartley (Bryceville, Fla.) at guard and John Bennett (Woodstock, Ga.) at tackle.
The two seniors have tried to take on leadership roles with the newcomers. Remembering what it was like to study Tech’s massive offensive playbook for the first time, Brown and Key know that the biggest challenge is mental rather than physical.
“You have to understand all the plays and communicate because one bad blocking call can destroy a whole play,” said Brown, who must protect the quarterback’s blind side from his left tackle post. “The aggressive part isn’t that hard because most of us are naturally aggressive, but you have to understand the design of the play and what your role is.”
“The little things are what make an offensive lineman,” concurred Key. “There are a lot of big guys out there who aren’t good offensive linemen, and there are a lot of smaller guys who are good. Each little step and movement are important. There’s a huge difference between aiming at somebody’s armpit and his outside number. Those three inches make a huge difference, so we work on little things like that daily.”
Of course, offensive linemen have a different vantage point than most of us.
“Once I break the huddle, that’s the last time I see the guys in the backfield,” said Key. “All I see is the 310-pound defensive lineman that I have to block. Usually you just wait to hear the crowd reaction to know if the play is working.
“Sometimes you see a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye. I remember one play last year when I glanced up and saw the ball and I thought it was way overthrown. But here comes Kelly Campbell out of nowhere, and he grabs it and goes for a touchdown.
“And then we have to run our big butts down the field and congratulate him!”
Something that Brown and Key hope to be doing often next fall.