How Georgia Tech is handling the shortage at offensive line

From experience, Georgia Tech offensive-line coach Brent Key knows that developing depth by training his linemen to play different positions is a necessity. He was working on it even in spring practice, shifting centers to tackle and tackles to guard.

He was compelled because he had coached teams previously where injuries had required him to go down the depth chart to the eighth or ninth lineman. His preparation has proved necessary.

“Didn’t necessarily think it would happen by Game 2 or 3, but it’s where we’re at,” Key said Tuesday after practice. “We’ve been preparing for it and they’re continuing to play to the best of their ability that way.”

Of the deficiencies that coach Geoff Collins’ team is facing in his first season, a depletion of the offensive line rates high on the list, and it was a factor in the Yellow Jackets’ loss to The Citadel on Saturday. Tech is off this week and will play at Temple in Philadelphia on Sept. 28.

At different points through the Yellow Jackets’ first three games, injuries to linemen Charlie Clark, Kenny Cooper, Jahaziel Lee, Mikey Minihan and Scott Morgan have reduced Key’s choices in a position group that, to start with, was small in number and short on experience. Minihan started the first two games at left guard but was in a walking boot during Saturday’s loss to The Citadel. Cooper has started at center all three games but is not 100 percent and was forced out of the South Florida game with an injury. Lee was a regular at left tackle, started there against The Citadel and is now out for the season after breaking the fibula in his left leg.

“We don’t really consider it hard,” Key said. “Coach Collins preaches to us about (not using) that word. Is it a challenge? Yes, it’s a challenge. Is it unfortunate for Jahaziel? Yes, it’s unfortunate for Jahaziel. But hard isn’t really the way we look at it.”

Key’s cross training has paid off. After Lee’s injury in Saturday’s loss to The Citadel, right tackle Zach Quinney switched to left tackle to take Lee’s place. Right guard Jared Southers moved to right tackle to take Quinney’s spot. Walk-on Hamp Gibbs came in to play right guard, where Southers had been.

“It comes back to the versatility of the players and the eagerness of them to learn multiple positions that’s been able to allow us to do that,” Key said.

Key will have reinforcements arriving next year, as there are six offensive linemen committed for the 2020 signing class. But from now through the end of the season, he has 11 scholarship linemen, including his injured bunch. He has already called on walk-ons William Lay and Gibbs in the past two weeks. They’ll have to make it through the next nine games of the regular season against competition decidedly more challenging than The CItadel.

The open date (the first of two this season) arrives at an opportune time for Tech, as the line has time to heal before the Temple game. At the same time, Key can continue to train the linemen he has available. No shortage of time in practice is spent on pass-protection drills, knowing who blocks whom when the defense dials up blitzes and line stunts.

Tech averaged 6.5 yards per play against The Citadel, a winning rate that reflected the line’s work, but lost in part because of its 3-for-9 performance on third-down conversions. That outcome was partially attributable to missed blocks, though not only by the line.

“It’s fortunate that we are in a week right now where we have a chance to not have an opponent on Saturday, but use it as a work week,” Key said.

Collins was planning to have preseason-type practices Tuesday and Wednesday before beginning preparation for the Owls on Thursday.

It would be particularly useful for guard Connor Hansen, who has returned from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss spring practice and the preseason. Hansen started nine games last season.

“He’s at base zero right now,” Key said. “The things he’s learned mentally over the course of the last several months is one thing, but when you put the pads on, the real-life application of it is totally different. Having to piece those things in with him and obviously get in shape, that’s a huge part of it.”