April 7, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
On the chance you’re given to panic, Monday might have been one of those days where a Georgia Tech football fan would’ve thrown up their arms at practice.
The offensive line struggled in Saturday’s scrimmage, and in Monday’s practice O-linemen moved around like pawns. Freddie Burden, the most likely candidate to start at center in the fall, was flexed out to tackle and that wasn’t the only move.
Offensive line coach Mike Sewak went into repair-and-develop mode.
“It was bad,” the coach said of his unit’s scrimmage play. “I don’t know if we’ve progressed as fast as we want to. We spent a lot of time on [the first] step today. That wasn’t even right when we watched it. It shouldn’t take this much time.”
The Jackets are looking for at least two new starters up front, perhaps more if tackles Bryan Chamberlain and/or Trey Braun don’t do enough between now and fall to retain their spurs after each started just than half the games last fall.
Shaq Mason is set at right guard although Sewak mentioned that he’s not yet a Hall-of-Fame tape himself.
Beyond him, jobs are open.
Just three of the Jackets’ top eight O-linemen are back from last season, and some of the key candidates for spots are wildly inexperienced.
Chris Griffin and Shamire Devine redshirted last season and will have shots, and Burden and Errin Joe had medical issues last season who now find themselves in the mix as well along with Auburn transfer Thomas O’Reilly.
Joe is still behind physically.
The Paul Johnson-Mike Sewak model is, for most intents and purposes, to get the top five linemen on the field with the starting unit even if that means switching a player from a position that is his best to one that is not.
Add to that the fact that Johnson and Sewak like to cross-train linemen so they know multiple positions (think of Ray Beno and Will Jackson bouncing around in recent seasons), and there is movement aplenty.
The big news Monday – other than Johnson suggesting that the experiment of having B-back/speedster Broderick Snoddy try A-back may have resulted in Snoddy being declared an A-back for good – was Burden moving to tackle.
Braun and Chamberlin did not play to disastrous results in that Saturday scrimmage, but neither did they overwhelm.
Since O’Reilly, an Auburn transfer, is ahead of where he was last spring in his first go-round, and because Burden has perhaps not matched the potential he flashed early last spring before blowing out a knee to sideline himself for the season, Burden was thrust into the game of musical chairs.
Center and tackle are quite different positions to play, one forever unfolding in a traffic jam and the other being out on a landing strip where the goal is to keep a plane from flying by – usually without help from teammates.
Less important than that is the fact that Burden has been sluggish, at least physically, in his return to the gridiron.
“I’ve been waiting for Freddie to do something, and I haven’t seen it yet,” Sewak said. “We had a couple guys go down, and so I got a chance to get him out there . . . so I could see him play hard and fast.
“I want him to be the center [but] . . . as many snaps as he’s missed; he hasn’t played in a year, he wasn’t [being] as physical as he had been, and today was really the first time I saw him be physical.”
A tight end in high school, after playing some tackle, Burden admitted being taxed. That may be a good thing, a little cattle prod to the backside.
“Definitely an adjustment,” he summarized. “You get a lot of help inside, but you’re kind of on an island outside. Your steps have to be a little better than they are inside since you’re mainly blocking a defensive end and inside you’re often double-teaming.
“When [Sewak] told me I was kind of shocked . . . he said we’re going to move some guys around a little bit.”
Coaches may feel better about something like this because O’Reilly, who played in six games last season, is ahead of his 2013 pace. Sewak credited him for improving his body and physical status.
For his part, O’Reilly said that he has a better idea of what the hell is going on.
“Last spring they had me playing guard and come the fall we had a couple injuries and they had me move to center. I definitely feel a lot better,” he said. “Last spring, I was still learning the offense and I had a tough time adjusting to it. I didn’t really know what was going on, and didn’t understand it.”
When any football player better understands what is expected of him, he plays faster; there’s less thinking and more doing.
“You don’t have to worry so much about what to do, or who to block,” O’Reilly added. “You can focus on getting your first two steps in the ground and doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Having spent substantial time at two positions, O’Reilly seems to get the concept of cross training not only for coaches to see different players in different spots, but also to foster a unit-style understanding of what’s going on in the trenches.
A guard can more effectively cheat one direction or the other on a given play if he knows where his teammates are likely to be after the snap.
“It’s good because it’s good to know what you’re doing but also where your teammate is going to end up,” O’Reilly said. “When you know that, and where the ball is going, you kind of know where defenders are going to be.”
That said, if the O-line coach had his way, there would be less need for flexibility.
“I’d like to have a guy sit in his spot and learn his technique and get good at it . . . without having to think about it,” Sewak said. “Everything happens with reps . . . full-speed reps. They’re a good group. They’ve just got to take care of business.”
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