Dec. 12, 2016
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson didn’t get specific last Thursday when he and Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops met media in Jacksonville to discuss the TaxSlayer Bowl, but it bears mentioning that the Yellow Jackets improved over the second half of the season and the offensive line was a big part of that.
A young blocking unit struggled last season but as this season wore on, the upfront Jackets became steadier despite once again being young.
Tech (8-4) averaged 229.2 rushing yards in the first six games and 285.7 after that to punch a ticket to the Dec. 31 bowl game against Kentucky (7-5).
“I was really proud of our team and the way that we finished the season, winning five of the last six games,” Johnson said. “We started out 3-3 and kind of … felt like the season was kind of mediocre and just sitting there.
“We got fortunate and got hot a little bit and starting playing a little bit better and really finished up the season on a positive note.”
Actually, the Jackets finished with three positives, winning 30-20 at No. 18 Virginia Tech while rushing for 309 yards against the Hokies, beating Virginia, 31-17, and then rallying from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit for a 28-27 victory at Georgia on Qua Searcy’s last-minute dive into the end zone in Sanford Stadium.
Big plays became all the more common in the second half of the season, especially when the Jackets rolled up 605 yards of total offense in a 38-35 win over Duke. Tech had 11 plays in that game of 20 or more yards.
It starts up front, where the only senior, Freddie Burden, started 11-of-12 games at center. He was spelled at Virginia Tech by Kenny Cooper, one of three true freshmen to start on the line for the Jackets.
The other tackle starts were spread among sophomore Trey Klock and juniors Eason Fromayan and Andrew Marshall. They each started at least once on each side and they all played a lot as the Jackets deployed more depth than in recent years.
“I think a lot more guys are playing so there’s more competition to get the snaps and that’s boded well for us,” said offensive line coach Mike Sewak. “They’ve done a good job studying the plays and getting themselves ready to play. They also have gotten up to the speed of the game.
“I think they’ve gotten better . . . coming off the ball and trusting one another that we’re making the right calls and getting where we need to be.”
Communication is critical to offensive line play and according to Burden — who was the only center named to ESPN.com’s 25-man all-ACC team — the Jackets are on the same wave length.
“We’re gelling as a group and closer to each other,” he said. “We’re trusting each other with calls and things like that.”
Devine is the biggest at 6-feet-7, 370 pounds. Although he didn’t play as much later in the season, he’s still among the top Jackets in certain situations.
“A lot of it had to do with the way the defense was playing,” Sewak explained. “He’s better when he’s covered [head-up by a defender].”
The Jackets were lighter as a unit this season by design. The entire group worked hard in the offseason to become leaner and that paid off late.
“I definitely think it helps. You have two guards who are very light now. They’re 273 and 280,” Sewak said. “They can get into people and move fast and move people off the ball … [At center] Freddie, when he lost his weight, he kept it off. He can stay low a lot longer and more snaps.”
Tech figures to have quite a bit of experience returning in the line next year as seven of the nine players who played the bulk of the minutes of the offensive line are scheduled to be back.
Burden has graduated and is likely to make a run at an NFL roster. Fromayan, who redshirted in 2013 after transferring from TCU to be nearer his Alpharetta home, will graduate this week with a degree in business administration and pursue a career in NASCAR.
“He came in here and transformed himself into being a run blocker. He was better as a pass blocker than a run blocker,” Sewak said.
“I think he improved himself a lot more than he anticipated. If he decided to stay, that wouldn’t shock me, but I think he has bigger aspirations than playing in the NFL, which I think he thinks is a longshot. I do think he thinks he can make a lot of money in NASCAR. I’ll enjoy watching him on Sundays.”