Jackets begin camp with offensive line position battle

ATLANTA — The whistles that have begun echoing through the Rose Bowl practice fields these August afternoons are heralding more than just the return of football.

In their sometimes quick staccato sounds, they are ushering in a sense of urgency among the players who heed their every call. They beckon for competition and screech at signs of languish and laziness.

This summer, as Georgia Tech opens preseason camp, already several position battles have cropped up, with few being more contentious than the ones at the guard positions on the offensive line.

“It’s great,” redshirt freshman guard Will Jackson said. “Competition definitely brings out the best and makes you rise to the occasion. You’ve got to bring out your A-game every day, or else you’ll fall behind and potentially lose your shot at playing this year.”

One of five players battling for two starting guard spots, Jackson is in a friendly competition with Dublin product Nick McRae, sophomore Omoregie Uzzi, redshirt freshman Ray Beno and senior Zach Krish.

While the post-spring practice depth chart indicates McRae and Uzzi currently hold the respective left and right guard spots, it actually remains anybody’s guess as to who will really be playing the positions when the season begins Sept. 4.

“One of the things we really stress on the offensive line is that no one’s position is secure,” senior center Sean Bedford said. “Everybody has to earn their spot, and we’re all pushing each other, because we know whoever winds up with that spot will have earned that spot.”

This time last year, Bedford, a former walk-on defensive lineman, earned the opportunity to start on the offensive line.

Although senior Dan Voss was the incumbent at center, Bedford did just enough throughout August practices to impress coaches to the point that they felt the veteran had to be trumped and replaced. The move paid off.

After helping Georgia Tech’s offense roll up more than 4,100 yards rushing last season, Bedford was named first-team All-ACC and twice took home the conference’s offensive lineman of the week honors. Last month, he was named the Yellow Jackets’ only selection to the preseason All-ACC team.

“It’s the person that goes out there and knows their assignments and gives the most effort and gets the job done. Sean was able to do that last year,” Jackson said. “And that’ll be the person that wins it (this year). There’s nothing else to it.”

After watching the Bedford-Voss competition go until virtually the end of camp, McRae knows that this job may not be determined until the week of the Yellow Jackets’ opener with South Carolina State. As a result, there is only one way he can approach this month.

“Don’t relax,” McRae said. “Our spot is not guaranteed, and that’s the way I’m looking at it right now. You have to come out hard every day, give a lot of effort during practice and try to win the job.”

This offseason, McRae tried to better himself by working with Bedford on technique and film study. Whenever his unit leader made a request for additional film study, McRae made sure to be there.

“Nick McRae, he’s done everything we could ask of him,” Bedford said. “He’s played every position on the line, he knows them all really well. He’s a real team player; he’s trying as hard as anybody I’ve seen.”

In his time at Georgia Tech, due in part to injuries, McRae — much like Krish — has practiced at guard, tackle and center and has developed a basis for understanding how each position operates in the Yellow Jackets’ unique spread option offense.

While Jackson and McRae push each other at left guard, Uzzi and Beno are contending at the right position. Uzzi, however — a game-tested young lineman — is the early favorite.

As a redshirt freshman last fall, Uzzi played in 12 games.

Pushing the scales at more than 300 pounds, Uzzi said his main concern this month will be making sure he can play with his weight at the lightning-fast speeds under which the games are played. Practice speed doesn’t always equate to game speed, he said.

“With our competition (level), when the competition gets a lot harder, it gets a lot faster,” Uzzi said. “So the hardest thing from transitioning to practice to the game is the speed. And that’s the biggest thing I’ve got to focus on.”

Having played last season will be a big help to making that all work, he said.

Head coach Paul Johnson is glad to see his players working against each other in this capacity, and is happy that it appears to be a trend that has engulfed his team. In addition to guard, the offensive and defensive tackles are playing for starting time, as are a few inside linebackers and safeties. A-backs, B-backs and receivers are each competing for No. 2 backup roles.

It all means the coach — in his third season with the Yellow Jackets — believes he is going in the right direction with the foundation to his team.

“As you start to build your program, that’s what you want,” Johnson said. “Competition will make everybody a little better.

“We haven’t had enough of that.”