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Sept. 30, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – A team on a roll creates a kind of excitement that even the players can feel.
And after four weeks of the college football season, Georgia Tech is feeling it.
The Yellow Jackets are 4-0 overall, 1-0 in the ACC and ranked No. 21 in both the Associated Press and coaches’ polls. The balance the players must strive to find is to enjoy the success without losing sight of the task at hand. And Tech’s next task is a road game Saturday against NC State.
“With every win we get more excited,” said right guard Omoregie Uzzi, “but right now we’re just focused on trying to beat NC State this week. We know it’s going to be a difficult road test.
“I’m sure they’re disappointed about their start this year (2-2 overall, 0-1 ACC). I’m sure they’re looking for this game as a mark for the rest of their season. That’s how we’re thinking about it right now.”
As if the Jackets needed any additional motivation, all they have to do is remember last year’s meeting, when the Wolfpack came into Bobby Dodd Stadium and thrashed Tech 45-28.
“I think we can play a little better than we did a year ago here,” said Tech coach Paul Johnson.
If the Jackets do play better, the offense will likely have a lot to do with it. Tech ranks first in the country in scoring, first in total offense and second in rushing offense. While the skill players roll up the yards and touchdowns, the success starts with the offensive line.
It’s a unit without a senior, but one with considerable experience. Uzzi and right tackle Phil Smith are fourth-year juniors while left guard Will Jackson, left tackle Ray Beno and center Jay Finch are third-year sophomores.
“We were able to redshirt all of those kids their freshman year(s),” Johnson said, “so that's kind of what you'd like to have. In a couple of years, you hope that they will be really good.”
Uzzi already is really good. He made second-team All-ACC in 2010 and this season he has twice been selected as the ACC offensive lineman of the week. He takes pride in the accomplishment, but insisted it was the product of everyone working together.
“It’s nice to get recognition for what we do,” Uzzi said, “but our whole offense is doing a great job. The runners are trying for extra yards, the receivers on the perimeter are blocking and catching the ball. It’s a whole team effort.”
NC State coach Tom O’Brien said Tech’s offensive line is a more efficient unit than last season. And the player he calls “No. 77 to me” has caught his attention.
“He's certainly their best lineman without question,” O’Brien said of No 77. “He comes off the ball, he's low, he gets into his blocks and he stays on his blocks and he knocks people down. He's an impressive guy.”
As one of the oldest players on the line, Uzzi has developed into a leader.
“Yeah, he's probably the leader of the offensive line,” Johnson said. “He's started for the last couple of years and he's played a lot of snaps. So I think those guys probably feed off him a little bit.”
It’s a role Uzzi takes seriously.
“I try to make sure everybody is communicating, everybody is on the same page,” he said. “I kind of look for myself to do that (set the tone), make sure everyone is doing the right thing, everybody is taking the right steps to get where we need to go. I try to take whatever coach teaches us to do and reiterate it to everybody else.”
And when Uzzi says “everyone,” he means just that. Offensive line coach Mike Sewak said Uzzi takes a special interest in the two true freshmen who are backups and even the offensive linemen who are redshirting this season.
“He has taken that role under his belt since the summertime when he started working with the true freshmen,” Sewak said. “They all like him; he has a group of them that run with him, they all try to maintain a certain body weight and he’s also a taskmaster to them, too.
“He has a very good understanding and he can explain the offense to our young guys and he’s always taking an active role in that. Even the guys who are redshirting, he’s keeping them up to speed on what we’re doing and why we’re doing those things.”
Uzzi is from Lithonia, Ga., and started going to watch Georgia Tech football when he was about 6 years old. He always enjoyed the atmosphere and, as a business management major, likes the opportunities that might be available to him after graduation.
In high school he played in a similar offense to Tech’s option attack but he still had a lot to learn when he got to the college level. He soaked up the instruction about technique and terminology during his redshirt season. He played as a backup in his second season.
“I didn’t get a grasp of the offense until my redshirt freshman year,” Uzzi said, “what my job is and how it contributes to the whole team, how your role fits into the offense.
“It was like night and day from my freshman year to my redshirt freshman year. It helped a lot, getting the experience. I played a lot, maybe 30 to 40 snaps a game, and it benefited my whole college career.”
Uzzi stepped into a starting role as a sophomore and has been a pillar of strength ever since.
“With the year’s experience that he has, a bunch of starts under his belt, he doesn’t seem to make any mistakes,” Sewak said. “He’s got a very good football mind. The only thing he might do sometimes is he might hear a play wrong, but he owns up to those and he tries not to repeat it.
“He’s a strong, powerful man, he’s got good upper body strength and he can he can push some guys around, that’s his expertise. He gets you locked up and he can move his feet pretty good. I think there are some things he definitely needs to work on. This season and next season he’ll keep getting better and better and maybe as a senior he’ll reach his full potential.”
In this era of gargantuan linemen, all of the Jackets check in at under 300 pounds. Uzzi is listed at 300 but is a few pounds below that. Sewak explained that Tech’s linemen do a lot of running, pulling and blocking people in space, so they have to be able to move and bend.
Tech keeps a statistic for offensive linemen and Uzzi was particularly impressive in last week’s 35-28 win over North Carolina.
“He had 20 defenders to the ground,” Johnson said, “so that is a pretty good stat for one game.”
In the past few years, most of Tech’s scoring has been done on long drives that eat up the clock but also can take a toll on linemen. Sewak said Uzzi “does not tire” but the lineman welcomes the addition of the quick-strike passing game the Jackets have developed with quarterback Tevin Washington this season.
“We like those quick drives,” Uzzi said. “They’re a lifesaver. I’ve seen Tevin work all summer with the other guys as far as the passing game goes. I’m just glad it manifested.”
Like any good offensive line, the starters and backups have developed a way of working with precision and efficiency.
“It’s been a great chemistry,” Uzzi said. “We have a little nickname, the Goon Squad, and we’re just trying to build from that. You just know you’ve got to be fearless and go out there and work, come out there every day and do the best you can.
“It’s been an exciting season and we’re just trying to keep it rolling the rest of the year.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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