For Georgia Tech’s offensive line vs. Clemson, ‘a real trial by fire’

September 4, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's quarterback Jordan Yates (13) celebrates after he scored a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 4, 2021. Northern Illinois won 22-21 over Georgia Tech(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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September 4, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's quarterback Jordan Yates (13) celebrates after he scored a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 4, 2021. Northern Illinois won 22-21 over Georgia Tech(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

A moment in the spotlight for Georgia Tech has arrived. When the Yellow Jackets play No. 6 Clemson on Saturday, they’ll have a national TV audience on ABC for their 3:30 p.m. kickoff. It could be their biggest audience of the season.

For Tech’s offensive line, it is a particularly meaningful opportunity.

“This is the biggest stage to do it on,” left tackle Devin Cochran said. “Obviously, Clemson is supposed to be the No. 1 team, and now we finally have an opportunity to go against a team that’s excellent on a huge stage in front of a lot of people and finally put some great things on tape, all across the board.”

For Tech’s offensive line, the challenge awaiting across the line of scrimmage at Clemson Memorial Stadium is daunting. Clemson’s defensive line has been an enduring strength, and the 2021 version has shown indication of being equal to its predecessors.

“I don’t know that I can say they’re the best I’ve seen,” said former Tech center Sean Bedford, the excellent analyst for the Tech radio broadcast team. “That’s good company to be in. But I think they’re as talented as anyone in the country. Every one of those guys can win one-on-one battles and can win a lot of on one-on-two battles, which is a really nice luxury to have.”

The accolades are many. Of the nine defensive linemen listed on Clemson’s two-deep depth chart, four were five-star recruits and four were four-star recruits (247Sports Composite).

Defensive end Myles Murphy (Hillgrove High) was a freshman All-American last season. Defensive tackle Bryan Bresee was ACC defensive rookie of the year and first-team All-ACC last season. Defensive tackle Tyler Davis is a strong candidate for the next NFL draft.

While the Tigers lost to Georgia 10-3 in both teams’ season opener, the Bulldogs were held without an offensive touchdown and limited to 256 yards of offense. There are reasons why Tech is a 28.5-point underdog to Clemson, and the Tigers’ defensive line is high on the list.

“Those guys, that’s a good defensive front,” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “Those guys get after it. They’re a good defensive front, they push the pocket, they’re good run guys, they’re athletic.”

Key’s line has been expected to be a strength of this team, and has often looked it through two games. It is loaded with experience. The quintet of Cochran, left guard Kenny Cooper, center Mikey Minihan, right guard Ryan Johnson and right tackle Jordan Williams (Nick Pendley also is an option) have a combined 122 career starts. Cochran and Johnson proved themselves in the SEC before coming to Tech as grad transfers.

“This is a real trial by fire for the offensive line and for the young quarterbacks and the rest of the offense,” Bedford said, “but especially for the offensive line because there is nowhere to hide when you’re facing a defensive line like Clemson’s.”

In two games, the Tech line often has been effective and overpowering, particularly in creating lanes for running back Jahmyr Gibbs and leading Gibbs and Dontae Smith in space.

However, in two games, the Jackets have allowed seven sacks to defenses nowhere close to Clemson’s level of excellence. Bedford has had concerns about the connection between quarterbacks Jeff Sims and Jordan Yates and the offensive line (though he said it improved against Kennesaw State) and has seen more disruption up the middle on both pass plays and slower developing run plays.

“I would have expected them to be a little steadier there,” he said.

Those sorts of lapses can slide against the likes of Northern Illinois and Kennesaw State, but “Clemson’s not going to afford you that luxury,” Bedford said. “If you get beat off the snap or if you get driven back into the backfield on some of those plays, it’s going to be a four-yard loss instead of the running back fighting back to the original line of scrimmage.”

Cochran said that the loss to Northern Illinois was “a huge wake-up for us,” and that practices have improved since.

“Over time, we had to realize that, OK, we’re finally on the field, the season’s finally started,” Cochran said. “We have to take everything extremely serious.”

For Tech to have any chance against the Tigers – perhaps even just to push back on Clemson’s dominance of the ACC and the series – the Jackets likely will need the line to play at its peak.

Whomever Tech starts at quarterback – Sims or Yates – can help the line by releasing the ball quickly. The backs and tight ends also will be enlisted in the blocking effort. As ever, playing cleanly – avoiding penalties, holding onto the ball – will be critical.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to run your plays,” Patenaude said. “You can’t come up with a whole new game plan or a whole new set of plays against each group each week and say, ‘Well, we can’t run this play because of this defensive front.’”

Patenaude acknowledged that he can target a player to run or away from, or make sure linemen are getting help from backs or tight ends against certain players, “but you’ve got to run your offense.”

On paper, the gap between Tech and Clemson appears vast, as indicated by the Jackets being 28.5-point underdogs. Clemson has won the past six in the series, including last year’s historic 73-7 rout at Bobby Dodd Stadium. And there’s this reality for Tech – this could be the best offensive line that Tech has for at least a couple of years, as Cochran, Cooper and Johnson are in their final seasons.

“It’s a tall task to step it up against a defensive line like Clemson’s, but at the same time, if there’s a competitive fire in this offensive line, which, I’m sure Brent Key has them prepared for that or has instilled that in them, this is the kind of game they want to show up and show out for,” Bedford said. “This is the kind of game where they have an opportunity to make a statement.”

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