Sept. 1, 2004
ATLANTA–Georgia Tech enters this week’s season opener with some uncertainty on its offensive line, but the constant has been senior center Andy Tidwell-Neal.
The Plymouth, Minn., native is one of three returning offensive line starters for the Yellow Jackets, who open the 2004 season Saturday at 1 p.m. with a home game against Samford at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field. Tech is coming off a seventh consecutive winning season and a school-record seventh straight bowl game last season with a 7-6 record, capped by a 52-10 victory over Tulsa in the Humanitarian Bowl.
Due to several minor injuries this preseason, Tech has mixed and matched players on its starting front line. One of those injuries was to projected starting center Kevin Tuminello, who remains questionable for this week’s game. Tuminello’s injury early in the preseason caused Tidwell-Neal to move from guard to center.
“Our guys are working hard and doing a good job, but it’s not the same when you don’t have the same five out there for any successive days in a row,” Tech head coach Chan Gailey said. “I don’t think we’ve had the same five out there more than three days in a row all preseason.”
Because of that, Gailey recognizes the importance of the stability that Tidwell-Neal has provided.
“He is probably the one piece of the puzzle that locks it all together,” Gailey said. “He directs people. He gets people lined up. He can now direct everything. And that has been a big plus and will stay a big plus for our offensive line. When we are in this state of flux on our offensive line, he keeps everything on an even keel. I don’t think you can understate what he does.”
Part of an offensive line that paved the way for Tech tailback P.J. Daniels to lead the ACC in rushing, Tidwell-Neal started every game at guard last fall, but he has also practiced throughout his career at center, where the Jackets graduated all-Atlantic Coast Conference performer Hugh Reilly. Whether it’s at center or guard, Tidwell-Neal’s experience, knowledge, strength and technique should make him one of the top linemen in the conference this season.
“I’ve told Coach that wherever he wants to play me, that’s fine,” Tidwell-Neal said. “If he wants me to play guard that’s fine with me. I really don’t have a preference.”
Tidwell-Neal, now 6-5 and 310 pounds, entered Tech with a freshman class that also included his current roommates, starting right guard Brad Honeycutt, who has missed some time with injury this preseason, and starting left tackle Kyle Wallace, who has bounced between left and right tackle due to the injuries. That familiarity off the field helps the offensive line as a unit.
“It was hard at times going into practice and not knowing who you’re going to be playing next to,” said Tidwell-Neal. “It’s trying at times but I think we’ll be stronger for it. I’ve known all the guys that I’m playing around for a long time. We’re all comfortable with each other personally; the key is to develop some cohesiveness on the field. That will come. I feel comfortable right now and I hope everyone else feels the same.”
In addition to the trio of Tidwell-Neal, Wallace and Honeycutt, Tech expects to line up Saturday with junior Salih Besirevic at right tackle and sophomore Brad Brezina at left guard.
“We’re coming together,” Tidwell-Neal continued. “It’s a long process getting people back and getting people healthy, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job. Some guys have stepped up. Brad Brezina especially has stepped in and has done a good job at left guard. I know that Salih Besirevic is back at right tackle and doing a great job for us there. I am excited about the offensive line right now and how it is coming together.”
An all-state player at Wayzata High School, Tidwell-Neal had no qualms about venturing far from home.
“It kind of just happened,” Tidwell-Neal said of his decision to fly south. “I came down for a senior camp and I had a great time with the school and the area. I thought Georgia Tech was a great fit for me. It was the first offer I got and I committed. I committed very early because I just knew I really wanted to come here from day one. I got the offer in June or July and I committed by September.”
Four years later, that decision has certainly paid dividends for the Yellow Jackets as they enter the 2004 season.
“I’m excited to play Samford,” said Tidwell-Neal, whose parents make the journey from Minnesota for most Tech games. “I’m always excited for the first game of the season. It’s what you’ve been talking about all summer and its a lot of fun to prepare for anyone rather than going against your teammates all of camp.”