More depth, choices for Georgia Tech on offensive line

Georgia Tech right guard Ryan Johnson is returning for a fifth college season by taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted to fall- and winter-sports athletes by the NCAA. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech right guard Ryan Johnson is returning for a fifth college season by taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted to fall- and winter-sports athletes by the NCAA. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Credit: Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Georgia Tech offensive line coach Brent Key has some choices to make at a couple of positions on the line. Considering Tech’s depth and talent shortages with that group in recent seasons, that isn’t the worst thing.

As spring practice concluded its third week Saturday, three of the five spots on the line appeared to be set – left tackle Devin Cochran, right guard Ryan Johnson and right tackle Jordan Williams. The other two spots – left guard and center – are more up in the air, particularly left guard.

“(Left guard) is a position we’ll take a little time to get used to and find the right mix of guys, but pleased with the amount of guys we have and the depth we have and we’re building right now across the front and the center position,” Key said Saturday.

At left guard, Austin Smith had been taking most of the snaps this spring with the first unit until this week, when Key moved freshman Paula Vaipulu into that spot. Vaipulu, a member of the 2020 signing class, mostly had been playing tackle this spring. Nick Pendley, a transfer from Mississippi State, also has gotten a look there, Key said.

It would appear to be the line’s biggest question mark. Smith didn’t play at all last season. Vaipulu played in one game. Pendley played in four games last season as a redshirt freshman at Mississippi State. Still, having three options is progress, where last year the depth might not have afforded Key that many choices.

At center, returning starter Mikey Minihan is being challenged by William Lay and Kenny Cooper. All three have starting experience. Key said he was pleased with the progress made this spring by Minihan, a first-year starter at center last season.

“I think we’re really solidified,” Key said.

Last year, Key had 14 scholarship offensive linemen. Six were newly arrived freshman, only one of whom (Williams) was ready for the field. Tech was fortunate that its starting five stayed healthy throughout the season, as the Jackets weren’t rich in subs who were ready to step in without much of a drop-off.

While Tech graduated two starters, left tackle Zach Quinney and left guard Jack DeFoor, Key has two graduate transfers with plenty of experience, Cochran (Vanderbilt) and offensive tackle Kenneth Kirby (Norfolk State), who will arrive after he graduates in May.

Vaipulu’s audition at left guard met Key’s high standard, at least for now.

“He has done a nice job for really being his first time in there for the last three practices,” Key said. “So, pleased with him, the kind of progress he’s making after a couple practices in there.”

Key had wanted to use Smith at center in the spring, but a thumb injury kept him from snapping the ball effectively, so he was shifted to guard. Smith was one of three players recognized as an Ultimate Iron Jacket for his work in the winter strength-and-conditioning program. He has made significant progress from last season.

“Austin Smith is a great football player,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen a whole lot of improvement out of him. When we came back in January, just seeing him alone in the weight room, he looked huge. He’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger, but he’s also gotten smarter on the football field. It’s a testament to how hard he’s been working. He’s been doing a great job.”

Cochran has impressed at left tackle. He started 32 games for Vanderbilt and looks like a solution.

“I mean, he’s just incredible,” Minihan said. “He’s big, he’s long, he’s athletic. He’s just a great athlete and a great dude, too.”

The line particularly benefits from the return of Johnson, who took advantage of the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA. He was a mentor last season to Williams, playing at right tackle next to Johnson.

“As soon as I saw that he said he was coming back, I just got happy because I know, me and him, we’ve got a little connection going,” Williams said. “It just feels good to have him playing next to me again.”

Last year, the line improved in its play from 2019, but still had shortcomings in both run blocking and pass protection. The size/strength mandate of coach Geoff Collins and the work of Key in developing talent helped the line make progress. However, for example, the offense’s pass-completion rate (53.7%, third lowest among power-conference teams) would undoubtedly have been higher had quarterback Jeff Sims been able to throw from clean pockets more frequently.

“We’ve got to be successful on the offensive and defensive lines, and that’s the name of the game in football,” Key said. “Bottom line, that is it.”

Having more options will create more competition and a wider safety net against injuries. Key expressed his pleasure with the group, saying that he likes coaching the players and has been having fun working with them.

“The guys come to work every day, and that’s what I’m most pleased with, is that they understand that it’s not a finished product,” he said.

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