Healing Yellow Jackets eager for spring practice

Errin Joe takes solace in this much — when the labrum in his shoulder gave out in August, it did so valiantly.

Joe, a Georgia Tech guard, had come into his sophomore season hoping to earn playing time after his freshman season was cut short by a foot injury. Just before the start of the first scrimmage of the preseason, Joe wanted to set the tone for his camp. Joe got in six snaps before he got hurt, but he said offensive line coach Mike Sewak told him they were the best six plays he had seen Joe play.

Joe expects to be cleared in advance of Tech’s spring practice, which begins March 24. Those six plays have whet his appetite and set the stage.

After the injury, he said, “I just kind of had to recollect myself and just know I can come back better than those six plays.”

Joe is one of a handful of Yellow Jackets whose seasons ended prematurely — or never started — because of injury. They’ll be on the field for the start of spring practice, ready for competition and to find a place on the depth chart.

“Right now, it’s just strengthening my knee, but I’m just ready for the competition, ready to help out the team, finally,” said defensive end Roderick Rook-Chungong, who was cleared after tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee last season.

Other Tech players coming back from injury and expected to be able to participate in spring practice are wide receiver Anthony Autry (ACL), center Freddie Burden (ACL), defensive back Jamal Golden (shoulder), offensive tackle Chase Roberts (concussion) and long snapper Sean Tobin (broken leg). Linebacker Anthony Harrell (knee) will be held out. Safety Isaiah Johnson, who tore an ACL in bowl practice in December 2012 and redshirted last season, also is expected to be ready.

Even before getting back on the field, Rook-Chungong faces a challenge shared by his mending teammates — regaining strength lost because of inactivity. Before the injury, he could squat a max of 490 pounds. Recently, he did a set at about 275 pounds.

“I need to get my explosiveness back,” he said, “get my legs under me.”

His was an odd injury. He suffered the tear while getting ready for a practice the week of the Miami game.

“It was crazy,” he said. “I was just stretching, and it just tore.”

When he plays next season, it will be the first time he’ll have played since his senior high school season in 2011.

“You sit back and watching it, it makes you cherish the game even more and not take it for granted,” Rook-Chungong said.

Center Freddie Burden is returning from a more significant knee injury, a tear of his ACL and meniscus. On the first day in full pads of spring practice last year, Burden stepped wrong on a toss play and collapsed, his season ended in an instant. Burden, who will be a third-year sophomore but like Joe and Rook-Chungong will have the opportunity to receive another season of eligibility by applying for a medical redshirt, used the time to gain strength in other parts of his body and tried to learn from veteran center Jay Finch.

“You learn a lot sitting back, so it was a blessing,” he said. “I took it as a positive instead of a negative.”

Fortunately for Burden, Joe and Rook-Chungong, at least, they will be in positions where they could quickly advance. Burden and returnee Thomas O’Reilly are the only scholarship centers in the bid to replace Finch. All-ACC selection Shaquille Mason and Trey Braun (eight starts in 2013) return at guard, but there is ample room to make a bid for a second-string spot. There will be only nine scholarship offensive linemen for Tech in the spring.

The defensive line lost three senior starters, including All-American Jeremiah Attaochu, who played the rush-end position that Rook-Chungong wants to fill.

“I’m excited for competition, just to be back, strap up my pads again and excited just to play,” Burden said. “Can’t wait.”

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