We continue our spring position previews by looking at arguably the most important position group in all of football; the offensive line.
For Georgia Tech, the offensive line has been a consistent focal point for improvement over the first two seasons of the Geoff Collins era. In 2019, the offensive line was among the worst in the country but in 2020, there were improvements and it was seen in the rushing attack where the Jackets ranked 43rd in rushing offense but in the pass blocking category, it was again a struggle. The Jackets ranked 71st in the country in sacks allowed with 23 over their 10 games, an average of 2.3 per game. Though it is fair to say that some of those sacks were allowed by the offensive line as a result of Jeff Sims holding onto the ball just a bit too long.
In 2021, the Yellow Jackets offensive line will need to take a step forward once again as the program looks to take the step from three wins in both 2019 and 2020 to potentially five or six wins in 2021. While the latter would be quite a big step, it’s not totally out of the question. That being said, if the Jackets are going to make that jump, the offensive line will need to see more improvements heading into next season.
Before delving into who returns and who has joined the program this offseason, we will have to note the departures. The biggest departures were that of Jack DeFoor and Zach Quinney. With both leaving, that means the Jackets entered this spring with the need to replace both their starting left guard and left tackle from last season. Both DeFoor and Quinney started all 10 games for the Jackets in 2020. Also leaving the program this offseason was redshirt junior Charlie Clark.
Four new offensive linemen are enrolled and on The Flats for this spring. The first two of those being transfers in Mississippi State guard transfer Nick Pendley. Pendley comes to Georgia Tech with six games of experience in Starkville while Cochran enters with 32 games of experience in his career. He was originally scheduled to join the program last fall but took a season away from the game and joined the program instead of this offseason.
The other two newcomers to the offensive line are a pair of 2021 recruiting class early enrollees in three-star offensive tackle recruit Jakiah Leftwich out of Westlake High School in Atlanta and high three-star guard prospect Weston Franklin out of Wayne County High School in Jesup, Georgia. Both players have tremendous ceilings and it wouldn’t be shocking to see either have roles sooner than later with the Yellow Jackets.
The returning starters on the offensive line for Georgia Tech is center Mikey Minihan, right guard Ryan Johnson, and right tackle Jordan Williams.
Minihan returns at center after making the move to the position for last season after spending time at guard. After not playing the position before this past season, Minihan was named to the watchlist for the Rimmington Trophy this past season, given out annually to the nation’s best center. Quite the honor and a testament to his level of play at the position. With that type of early success, it would be a bit shocking to see him be moved from center.
Johnson is entering his second season with the Yellow Jackets after starting all 10 games for the program last season. When combined with his time at Tennessee, Johnson has 46-games of experience including 29 career starts, he also has proven to be a very durable offensive lineman over his time, not missing any games over the past four seasons. Having Johnson back in 2021 is a huge boost for the Jackets offensive line, he’ll be a big anchor and leader for them this season.
Williams enters his second freshman season with eight games of starting experience under his belt from this past season. The only two games he didn’t start this season were the Jackets’ final pair of games against Duke and Pittsburgh, Charlie Clark got the start in Williams’ place in both games. He returns this spring as the probable starter at right tackle where he should have the chance to be a potential All-ACC caliber player for the Jackets.
What to do at left guard and left tackle?
This is the big question for the offensive line this offseason and is likely one we won’t have an answer to until perhaps the season opener on September 4 against the Nothern Illinois Huskies.
An educated guess would say that at left tackle, the front runner would be Devin Cochran. During his time at Vanderbilt, Cochran made 32 starts and was considered a legitimate NFL prospect. While he did take a season away from the game, it still seems likely that he would be the front runner for the starting spot thanks to his experience and overall talent level. That being said, with Norfolk State tackle Kenneth Kirby joining the program this fall, it will be interesting to see how the Jackets decide to play the two tackles who are both considered potential NFL-level talent. Could one of them move to right tackle and relegate Jordan Williams to backup? What about, potentially moving one of them inside to fulfill the left guard position? It will be highly intriguing to see how Geoff Collins and Brent Key juggle those two.
Now, if Cochran or Kirby are not moved to guard and instead both stay at tackle, there are a few potential options at left guard. The Jackets have a few options but based on Georgia Tech’s open practices, it would appear that redshirt sophomore Austin Smith is getting the reps with the first-team offensive line. Smith appeared in two games during the 2019 season but did not play in any games during the 2020 season. The big question here to be answered is, is Smith the guy they’re planning on being the starting left guard heading into next season, or is he more of a placeholder at this point? Other names at left guard to watch include transfer senior Kenny Cooper, freshman Nick Pendley, redshirt freshman Michael Maye, and even potentially true freshman Weston Franklin. With left guard, it’s safe to say it’s still a bigger question than left tackle, where the Jackets should be good to go with Devin Cochran.
Georgia Tech is set to have what on paper will be their strongest offensive line in quite some time but they’ll also be entering the 2021 season with quite a bit of depth. For starters, senior Kenny Cooper returns in 2021 for a third-senior season. He should be able to provide some versatility with the ability to play both centers but also guard as noted above.
They’ll also have experienced rotational players in aforementioned players such as the aforementioned Nick Pendley and Michael Maye but also in walk-on center William Lay III. It will be interesting to watch what second-year freshmen breakthrough on the Above the Line chart. Will, we see the likes of Michael Rankins, Wing Green, Cade Kootsouradis, and Paula Vaipulu? True freshmen and early enrollees Weston Franklin and Jakiah Leftwich both could also find themselves as quick risers in the rotation and Above the Line at some point in 2021.
Overall, Brent Key is working with the best talent of his Georgia Tech tenure thus far. While they have to replace the left side of the offensive line, the Jackets have experienced and high-quality talent ready to come in and replace Jack DeFoor and Zach Quinney. It would seem unlikely that the offensive line at the beginning of the season would look vastly improved from 2020 but as the 2021 season progresses, it would not be shocking at all to see the Georgia Tech offensive line become one of the better offensive lines in the ACC.