Line The Way: What’s accounted for Georgia Tech’s success on the offensive line this year? Technique and scheme explain some of it. But the group’s intangibles may tell the story better.
By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets) | Inside The Chart
Geep Wade uses plenty of coarse language.
Asked for the word or phrase he’s heard most often this year from his offensive line coach, guard Joe Fusile considered the question, then chuckled.
“It would be ‘sandpaper,’ actually,” the redshirt sophomore replied.
Apparently it’s something of a Geep Wade trademark.
“He wants you to sandpaper defenses. Just rough them up, cause some damage,” Fusile explained.
The word works on more levels than Wade may have realized. Sandpaper contains grit. It takes a distressed, beaten-up product and makes it smooth. Both of which could also describe the Yellow Jackets’ evolution up front.
After struggling for years to find its footing in the post-option era, the Tech line has grown into a bona fide strength in 2023 – and the rest of the ACC has taken notice, too. Fusile and right tackle Jordan Williams earned honorable mention All-ACC honors, giving Tech its first pair of all-conference offensive linemen since 2017. Left tackle Ethan Mackenny, making nine starts protecting quarterback Haynes King’s blind side, earned a spot on On3 and ESPN’s true freshman all-America team. Center Weston Franklin, who will be making his 24th-consecutive start in Friday’s Gasparilla Bowl against UCF (6:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports), won the team’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award at its year-end banquet on Wednesday. Along with guard Connor Scaglione and tackle Corey Robinson II, they’ve been the bulwark of an offense that has gone from 124th in the nation in yards per game to 30th this year.
Offensive linemen can feel chronically underappreciated, even in the best of times. But ask what they’ve meant to their success this year, and the Yellow Jackets’ skill players will happily line up (pun intended) and sing their praises.
“Those boys, they work. They pay attention. They’re eager to learn.” said running back Dontae Smith.
“The discipline, the tenacity and the willingness to be selfless. They understand that it’s not every day that they get the recognition they deserve. But they sit there, they go to work, and they grind and they just know that at the end of the day, if they do what they have to do, then we’re going to win the game,” added running back Jamal Haynes, who earned third team All-ACC honors.
,” added running back Jamal Haynes, who earned third team all-ACC honors this year.
Buster Faulkner said he made no judgments about Tech’s linemen when he took over as offensive coordinator in January. As any play-caller knows, though, an offense will only be as potent as its blocking will let it. But he and Wade had worked together once before, in the same roles at Middle Tennessee from 2013-15. Early on, he sensed Tech’s linemen could make the adjustment.
“Those guys have bought in to what we’re trying to do schematically. It’s not just about schemes either. It’s about the culture that you’re trying to bring every day, and I think Coach Wade does an unbelievable job of that,” Faulkner said.
“They’ve gotten better and better and better, and I think once they started to believe in themselves and how good they could be, they kind of just took off.”
Pick any number. The improvement is undeniable. Rush offense? Tech ranked 91st in the nation last year in yards per carry (3.75). This year they’ve jumped to 9th (5.39).
Pass protection? The Yellow Jackets ranked 117th in the nation in sacks allowed per game last year. This year, averaging roughly the same number of pass attempts per game, they leaped to 15th.
Yes, that turnaround has several factors – improved quarterback play, more explosive playmakers – but none of it happens without sturdy blocking up front. And while they’re still not as consistent as they’d like, Tech’s linemen say they have a system that fits their sensibilities.
“I think it’s our ‘get after it’ mentality. Just our ability to attack defenses and get off the ball fast,” Fusile said.
He laughed as he remembered another Geep Wade catchphrase.
“He wants you to attack. I hear the word ‘Run!’ screamed 90 times a day,” he said.
Wade is also fond of telling his players, “You’re either a guy or a dude. I want dudes.” The numbers suggest he has a roomful of them. But technique and scheme only explain so much of his unit’s success. Wade says he has a group of players who coach themselves and hold each other accountable. More than that, he owes their success to something simpler.
“You win with guys that love where they’re at, want to be here, and that’s what we look for in recruiting. We win with guys that want to be here. Bottom line. Don’t make it too hard,” Wade said.
Never was that more evident than when Franklin posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that all of Tech’s starting offensive linemen who still had eligibility would be returning next season. Fusile said there was no coordinated conversation about returning together; each player made the decision on his own, though no one had any serious intention of leaving.
— Weston Franklin (@wfranklin_2021) December 10, 2023
Fusile, Williams and Franklin had been a part of those lean seasons together. Now, he appreciates that they’ve inspired a level of encouragement from Tech fans that they haven’t felt in their offensive line in a while.
“I was just excited that they’re excited to have us back. We work very hard. We want to be a foundational part of this offense,” Fusile said.
Added Williams: “Everybody wants to be here. Everybody wants to see where this goes. Everybody loves what we’re doing right now.”
Better load up on the sandpaper.