Sept. 26, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Whenever he’s asked about the effectiveness of his yard-gobbling Spread Option Offense, Head Coach Paul Johnson prefers to simplify its basic components.
To paraphrase his simplification, block people and it works. Don’t block people and it doesn’t.
That’s also simply putting a ton of pressure on the offensive line. It’s even more weight when you consider that of the 10 players comprising the starting unit (tackles Ray Beno and Phil Smith, guards Will Jackson and Omoregi Uzzi and center Jay Finch), and their back- ups (tackles Morgan Bailey, and Tyler Kidney, guards Shaquille Mason and Trey Braun and center Nick McRae), seven are underclassmen. There also isn’t a senior to be found, and that makes what they’re doing even more remarkable.
Even more remarkable has been the way the unit, nicknamed “The Goon Squad,” has come together, considering they came into the season with a combined 38 starts. But it’s a talented unit as Uzzi made the preseason Outland Trophy Watch List — he’s since earned one ACC Offensive LIneman of the Week — and Jackson was recognized by one preseason publication as a fourth-team All-ACC selection.
Led by the “Goon Squad, ” the Jackets’ running game has produced to the level that has come to be expected from Johnson’s offenses. Last Saturday against North Carolina, they gained 312 rushing yards against a North Carolina team that was giving up 76.7 yards per game. That was a week after setting an ACC-record with 604 rushing yards and setting an NCAA mark with 12.1 yards per carry.
“I thought they did some things,” said Johnson. “Certainly they were battling in there and everything is hard-fought inside. They were mad when it was fourth down (and one) and we didn’t go for it.”
That’s confidence going up against North Carolina’s talented unit, easily the best and toughest of any Tech had seen in 2011. The line’s ability to open huge holes was a tribute to their execution
“It was definitely a great feeling because one-on-one, being out- weighed, it’s very hard for me to reach or block,” said Finch, a redshirt sophomore who stands 6-3, 283, but frequently found himself taking on 6-3, 315-pound DT Sylvester Williams or 6-3, 305-pound Tydreke Powell. “But when we have it schemed right and we can put two people on one, two heads are better than one, four legs are better than two. So it was just a match-up that we had to take advantage of and we did. It was a great feeling.
“They were definitely more athletically gifted than some of the other people that we’ve played, which made it definitely hard,” he added. “Also, they were big and fast.”
Their confidence never wavered, not even after the Tar Heels stormed from 14 points down starting the fourth quarter to tie the game. When the Yellow Jackets took possession at their own 39 with 7:15 to go, it was a matter of when they would score, not if.
“It was a very physical game, there were ups and downs. One thing that we tried to do was keep our heads up,” Finch said. “There are big plays every play it just depends on when it’s going to happen. There were times when my guy made the tackle and if he hadn’t it could have been gone. You have to keep your head up. It’s a momentum game, so you have to play it by play.”
The offensive line has kept the momentum going on drives by showing discipline and not taking crushing penalties. Against North Carolina, the unit took one penalty, a false-start by redshirt junior Phil Smith on the first drive of the game. From that point on, they were penalty- free. For the season, they have yet to be called for holding, and only once have been called for anything more egregious than a false start — an illegal block on Mason last in the Middle Tennessee State game.
It’s not like there hasn’t been temptation for the guys in the trenches to lose their cool. Finch sported a black-eye to show just how heated things got. They just don’t.
“I guess that’s why they call it the trenches because it’s a fight on every play, regardless of what I’m doing, pass or run block,” he said. “I guess one time, they got me with one of their favorite pass-rush moves, a head-slap and it caught me in the face.”
Finch, like the others, simply turned the other cheek, as well as making some blocking adjustments to allow for multiple success between the tackles.
“On the inside running game, we made some small tweaks,” he said “We saw how they played in the first half, which allowed us to make our own changes, which in the overall aspect helped us run a little better on the inside.”
As the line continue to get better, the Jackets should continue to run up scores and, simply put, that’s fun.