Jan. 7, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Paul Johnson sat a spell Monday with a handful of media in an informal session, and had quite a bit to say. Timed around the mutual decision that special teams coach Ray Rychleski is leaving Georgia Tech, the gathering revealed no surprises, yet was telling for the points that the head coach kept circling back to address.
The head coach is absolutely committed to improving offensive line play.
“My number one priority going into spring is . . . we’ve got to do a better job protecting our quarterback,” Johnson said. “[Pass protection] wasn’t very good. We’ve got to look at all of it. Look at the scheme, the way we’re teaching it, everything about it.
“Like I said, it’s unfair to blame it all on the offensive line. Certainly, they have their part it in but so did the slots, the A-backs and the B-backs. It’s kind of a combination: scheme, coaching, all of it.”
It was clear in the low-key session that Johnson has been grinding through analysis after what he described as a, “miserable,” experience. He touched on other topics over 35 minutes, yet the offensive line came up repeatedly.
Johnson is right to point to the loss before last season of so much experience at every running back position, the departure of two wide receivers to the NFL draft, and All-American right guard Shaquille Mason (now a starter for the New England Patriots) as significant.
The fact that so many backs and receivers were injured before and during last season also left the Jackets all the more inexperienced over time.
Explaining the offensive line’s inconsistencies is more difficult.
With four of five starters returning from a unit that was central to Tech’s 11-3 season, near miss in the ACC Championship game, and walloping of Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, the Jackets were expected to be stout up front.
Sure, Tech missed Mason, but there were many times the Jackets appeared to be out of sync across the front.
By the end of a 3-9 season, Johnson was perplexed. He still was Monday, saying of the O-line play, “Some of it is just mind boggling.”
Actually, there were some explanations.
Tech’s top lineman, center Freddie Burden, played much of the season hurt and coping as his father continued waiting for a heart transplant.
“We really struggled up the middle. Freddie played hurt most of the year and had a lot of stuff going on off the field that I’m not sure I could have handled,” Johnson said. “My hat’s off to him for fighting through it and coming back and playing. Most kids couldn’t have played.”
Furthermore, by season’s end, two greenhorns were in the O-Line mix. Freshman Will Bryan started at right tackle as Errin Joe moved inside for Shamire Devine, and redshirt freshman Trey Klock worked at left tackle.
Still, there was more confusion than would have been predicted. “I’d like to think that’s probably youth but you can’t fix a scheme for that,” Johnson said.
Specific fixes are under development.
There will be one new voice teaching O-linemen, as Rychleski had assisted offensive line coach Mike Sewak and a new assistant offensive line coach will be hired to do the same.
Sewak has a tall work order.
His role in recruiting has ramped up over the past few seasons, and he’s had success on that trail of late. He knows better than anyone what Johnson looks for up front, and they are searching for better ways to get it.
There are changes coming, and not just in the approach of the offensive line.
Johnson said pass protection problems – and run-blocking issues – were not entirely attributable to the line. Backs and receivers played parts.
A great many players who were absent last season, particularly running backs, are returning to health. It is possible that all players other than freshman Nathan Cottrell – lost before the season began after standing out in preseason practice – and Burden will be ready to roll in spring practice. Burden had surgery.
The pass protection schemes are going under the knife, too.
Tech quarterbacks were sacked a modest 15 times in 12 games, or once every 12.8 attempts (throws). A season earlier, the Jackets were sacked 11 times in 14 games, or once every 18.5 attempts.
These problems go past the numbers, though, and more to an eye test and to quarterback Justin Thomas’ sore ribs, shoulder, ankles, whatever.
“I mean, he was beat up all year,” Johnson said. “We didn’t hit him at all in practice, but during the games he took a pounding and it wasn’t from running [by design]. He took most of his licks in pass protection, and that’s not just a function of the offensive line. That’s backs and the whole nine yards.”
Johnson, Sewak and other assistants are looking through microscopes: What to excise, what to graft, and what to add?
They’ll have a much better handle once spring ball heats up in late March.