By Andy Demetra – The “Voice of the Yellow Jackets”
Growing up in Ponchatoula, La., Jahaziel Lee would accompany his father, Terrence, who runs a construction company, to job sites around their hometown. Eventually, as his body thickened to 6-2 and 270 pounds, Lee jumped in on his Dad’s crews, helping them pour and lay cement. He can still discuss the techniques of bull floating and screed boarding as comfortably as he can run blocking.
On those dusty job sites, straining beneath the Louisiana sun, Lee learned to take pride in pitching in on a job, in taking a rough, unformed product and making it smooth. So when Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson sought him out for some contract work this spring – namely, switching from left tackle to center to replace an injured Kenny Cooper – Lee felt confident he could handle it, despite having never snapped before.
A little more than four months after that position change, he’s ready to show the fruits of his labor. The junior is set to start at center Saturday for the Yellow Jackets, who open the season against Alcorn State at Bobby Dodd Stadium (12:30 p.m. EDT, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network).
A novice? Yes. Nervous? No.
“I’m having a tremendous amount of fun. I’m loving it,” Lee said.
Count the man who has taken his snaps as impressed.
“Me and Jahaziel are actually really clicking now,” said quarterback TaQuon Marshall. “He’s doing a great job, and I know it’s tough going from never snapping in your life to snapping on every play.”
Lee has shown the ability to adapt once before. The junior never played offensive line in high school, instead earning all-district honors at defensive end. He switched sides when he arrived at Tech the summer before his freshman year. A combination of injuries and his own precociousness moved him up the depth chart quickly; by Week, 10 Lee earned his first start at left tackle, a showdown against No. 18 Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. The Yellow Jackets, starting three true freshman offensive linemen, upset the Hokies 30-20.
Lee cemented himself as a sophomore, making eight starts at left tackle for the Jackets. That spot figured to be his heading into 2018. But when junior Kenny Cooper injured his foot in a scrimmage late in spring practice, it raised the possibility he could miss the start of the season.
Johnson, searching for a replacement, zeroed in on Lee.
“He’s got quickness and he can roll his hips,” he said earlier this month. “He’s a good athlete, so that’s a natural position for him.”
Even Lee was surprised at how natural snapping felt.
“When I first started, it came very quick. After playing tackle, which is probably, I feel, the hardest position on the offensive line, anything else comes easy. It came just like that,” he said.
But replacing a Rimington Trophy watch list candidate like Cooper is no easy task. Lee admits to some shaky exchanges in the Georgia Tech spring game, the closest thing he’s had to real, live competition. He says he leaned on Cooper and fellow offensive linemen Andrew Marshall and Chet Lagod, who also have snapping experience, for tips.
It also helps that his roommate is quarterback Lucas Johnson, giving Lee a live-in training partner. He could accelerate the learning curve whenever the mood struck.
“Whenever I felt the need to get some snaps, we’d snap the ball in the living room. Anytime I needed to get some reps in, he was there,” Lee said.
The junior practiced in more conventional surroundings throughout the summer, getting in extra work with Johnson and Marshall at Tech’s indoor facility on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Like a basketball player who tries to make 500 shots per day, Lee said he aimed for 25 to 30 “good snaps” each day.
All that repetition turns into the real thing on Saturday. But Lee doesn’t anticipate any clammy hands when he runs out for the first series.
“When I get those first few clean snaps, then the rest of the game should be smooth,” he said.
It’s clear he exudes confidence. But he also knows the job may be temporary. With Cooper on track to return next week, Lee may move back to his traditional left tackle spot against USF. Johnson said he might also have the flexibility of moving Cooper to guard should Lee acquit himself well against Alcorn State.
Yet even as he starts at an unfamiliar position, Lee will spot a familiar face Saturday. His former teammate at Ponchatoula High, Theron Bonds, is scheduled to start at defensive tackle for the Braves. Lee says they’ve bantered throughout the week.
“I let him know… we’re coming,” he said.
Their medium of choice? Fitting for Lee this week.