September 23, 2017 Atlanta - Georgia Tech running back KirVonte Benson (30) runs for a first down in the first half of an NCAA college football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, September 23, 2017. Georgia Tech won 35 - 17 over the Pittsburgh. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/AJC

Former Yellow Jackets hail Georgia Tech’s ‘guard box’

Former Georgia Tech center Freddie Burden is now watching his team from the Bobby Dodd Stadium stands after a three-year run at the literal center of the action.

“Yeah, it’s weird,” he said. “I’m, like, calling the plays from the stands.”

But, even from his removed distance, the former team captain likes what he sees from the offense he used to initiate in his three-year run as the Yellow Jackets’ starting center. Particularly, the play of what coach Paul Johnson calls the guard box – the two guards and the center – has impressed him.

“Those guys are good,” said Burden, who continues to work out in hopes of a shot at the NFL. “I’m proud of them.”

Burden joined other former Yellow Jackets players in hailing the play of left guard Parker Braun, center Kenny Cooper and the right guard rotation of Shamire Devine and Will Bryan as a driving force in Tech’s offensive play thus far. Going into Saturday’s game against North Carolina, Tech ranks first nationally with 393.7 yards per game.

The guard box’s work in creating a surge at the line has been a primary factor in B-back KirVonte Benson rushing for 124 yards against Tennessee in the season opener and 196 against Pittsburgh on Saturday, the latter the most gained by a B-back in Johnson’s tenure. Against Tennessee, quarterback TaQuon Marshall gained many of his 249 rushing yards, an ACC record for a quarterback, behind the guard-center-guard combo.

“All in all, it looks really good,” former lineman Will Jackson said. “It’s hard to get into the weeds, but it looks like they’re playing their tails off, which is what you want.”

Jackson, Burden and 2011 team captain Roddy Jones, now a sideline reporter with ESPN, noted the importance of being strong at those three positions in Johnson’s spread-option offense because of their ability to create space for runs up the middle, a staple of the offense.

“When you can steal three yards on a B-back dive or a quarterback follow, it’s so helpful because second-and-6 becomes a third-and-3,” Jones said. “A third-and-2 is automatic. A fourth-and-1 is so much easier to go for. It just all falls together. It’s not a slight to the tackles, but the guards and center are what make that happen. They’re the ones that have got to make the grown-man blocks on those plays.”

Through three games, Tech has run 23 times when facing between a third-and-1 and third-and-3. The Jackets have converted 14 of those runs for first downs, according to cfbstats.com. Tech’s facility at picking up those third-and-shorts, as well as its ability to get into those situations, has a lot to do with why Tech is fifth nationally in third-down efficiency (54.6 percent) and fourth in time of possession (36:01).

Against Pittsburgh, Tech ran its B-backs between the tackles 34 times for 230 yards (6.8 yards per carry), according to statistics kept by Al Ciraldo Jr., son of the legendary Tech voice and a spotter for the Tech radio broadcast team.

The physical nature of those interior run plays – with the offensive line driving straight ahead and the B-back or quarterback running downhill – is a means through which Tech’s offense can impose its will.

“Those were always the games you felt good about, when you could get the B-back going and get production out of that position,” Jackson said.

Said Burden, “That’s one thing coach Johnson preached about week in and week out. If you get the B-back going, that opens up the whole offense. There’s so many things you can do with the triple option that people don’t realize.”

Braun has probably received the most attention of the group, being named ACC offensive lineman of the week for his 22 knockdown blocks against Pitt.

In that game, Braun caught Jackson’s attention with his cut block to free Marshall for his 32-yard touchdown run, pulling from left guard and leading Marshall on a run to the right sideline.

“I know from experience that pulling around as the backside guard and having to hit a moving target is very tough,” Jackson said. “To hit the moving target and then to get him down and get a knockdown on the play, that just takes incredible athleticism and incredible effort.”

Jackson and Burden also highlighted Cooper’s play thus far.

“He’s really physical at the point of attack,” said Jackson, an investment banker at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. “He does a great job of getting up to the second level, which is always a big key for the offense.”

Said Burden, “Kenny’s really athletic. I think people don’t realize it. He is really, really athletic.”

Their play thus far hasn’t caused Jackson, Burden or Jones to raise their outlook for the season, they said, as they were already optimistic. Jones said he was encouraged, but pointed out concerns about special-teams play and turnovers. Burden recognized that opponents like Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami will have bigger, stronger and faster defensive linemen than the Jackets have faced through three games.

“I think they definitely have it going right now,” Burden said. “Hopefully, they can continue it. I think they have a good running back with KirVonte back there with the game he had against Pittsburgh. If they can continue to build upon it and get better, they’ll be just fine.”

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