Georgia Tech offensive line trio at end of ‘fun ride’

Will Jackson knows how he wants it to end.

“Get the ball at the start of the fourth quarter on about the 2-yard line and drive it for 14 minutes and 58 seconds, and punch it in and do a squib kick and win the ballgame,” Jackson said Friday, shortly after Georgia Tech arrived for the Music City Bowl. “That’s how I fantasize it going, other than somehow catching a tipped touchdown pass. But within the realms of possibility, I’ll say that’s the way I want it to go.”

It would be an apt conclusion for Jackson, Tech’s four-year starter on the offensive line, and his two classmates who arrived on campus together in 2009 — offensive tackle Ray Beno and center Jay Finch. The three redshirted together that season, when they played together on the offensive scout team, and have started on the line together for the past three seasons.

Barring injury, Monday’s game against Ole Miss will be the 26th in which the three have started together. In Tech history, it’s possible that no trio of offensive linemen has played more snaps together than these bearded three.

“Being able to come in with two guys from the beginning and finishing out with the same two guys is very special,” Beno said. “We know the ins and outs of their play for these five years. It’s something we’ll remember for a lifetime.”

They were building blocks for coach Paul Johnson’s offense, signed in 2009 after his first season at Tech. They have demonstrated durability and toughness in the engine room for Tech’s pounding option game, one that finished second (2011) and fourth (2012) in the country in rushing yards per game the past two years and enters the bowl game ranked fourth at 311.7 yards per game.

They developed a cohesion that does not need words. While Jackson in particular has moved around the line, playing left guard and both tackles, they played in a row — Beno at left tackle, Jackson at left guard and Finch at center — in more than half of the games they’ve started together.

When Jackson and Beno double-teamed defensive linemen, Beno knew he could peel off and move to the linebacker level when Jackson nudged his elbow with his helmet. Jackson developed the same connection with Finch. “It really is one of those things that, until you’re actually playing next to somebody else, you kind of take those relationships for granted,” Jackson said.

They have shared bruises and laughs, wins and losses. The three roomed together as freshmen. One of the more memorable moments of their careers — when Beno caught a deflected pass against Duke in 2012 and rumbled for a first down — has its own personal twist.

When they returned to the huddle, Finch said, “he was jacked up and we were all, like, dying laughing.”

Finch wryly downplayed the moment. “I was like, ‘Hey, man, didn’t see that coming, but you got one up on me in the stats column.’”

Jackson recalled with amusement occasions when Finch got into trash-talking spats with opponents and made them personal.

“You can watch it on tape, where he might even blow an assignment if it means he gets revenge on one of those guys he was talking (to),” Jackson said.

It hasn’t been perfect. Johnson said before the season that “hands down, not even close, this’ll be the best group we’ve ever had, if they’re all healthy.”

The caveat has proved prophetic. Right tackle Morgan Bailey, projected as a starter, has played three games this season, none as a starter. Beno missed four games. The offense produced, but the line did not match the lofty expectations. The bigger picture looks pretty good to Jackson.

“All in all, I feel pretty good looking back on it,” he said. “Looking back on when we were seniors in high school, talking about our future careers and what might happen, we’ve all three played a lot of football and had a lot of success. We’ve all graduated. So, all in all, it’s been a fun ride.”