Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
It was a downright miserable 20th birthday for Georgia Tech offensive tackle Nick Claytor, who spent April 1 in an Ohio hospital where he underwent surgery for a ruptured disc in his back. It was still better, though, than going through another season with the scary pain and numbness on his left side.
Claytor was in the hospital for about four days, and he wasn't the only starting offensive lineman at Georgia Tech who spent more time this offseason recovering than he did playing football. Center Dan Voss, who fell awkwardly on his shoulder against Mississippi State last year and said "it just popped out," was also held out of spring drills, along with senior guard Cord Howard, who missed most of the practices.
Even though Georgia Tech featured the No. 4 rushing offense in the country last year, there was still room for improvement up front, and the offensive line remains a concern heading into summer camp. Some of the progress was slowed by the absences caused by injuries, but those within the program say it gave the backups some valuable reps that will in turn make the unit better and deeper in 2009.
"Last year we didn't play nearly as well as we needed to and had a lot of room for improvement," Voss said. "It was almost like there was nowhere to go but up for us. In the spring we really built a lot of depth, and although Nick and Cord and I were out for a lot of it, we were getting better in the film room, just by watching plays and taking a different point of view. And the guys who did play definitely got better with the reps. I think overall it will be a lot better offensive line next year."
The last thing Claytor is worried about is healing.
"I really, really, really want a championship," he said. "Getting healthy and getting back in shape, that's not even a goal -- that's going to happen. The goal is to win games."
Because Claytor's injury kept him sidelined for so long, though, he said he might be a little tentative until he gets hit for the first time this summer.
"When it's time to start hitting again, it will probably take a day, or one good shot from a linebacker or one of our ridiculous D-linemen," said Claytor, who has been lifting again, but isn't back to a full sprint yet. "Our D-linemen are so good. It will probably take one good shot from one of them to get me angry and back into it."
Voss wasn't allowed to do any lifting with his left arm, and spent most of the spring wearing a red jersey running on the practice field sideline affectionately known as "muscle beach." He said he expects to shake off the rust within the first two weeks of summer camp, and that he benefited from his time as a "player-coach" this offseason.
"With coach [Paul] Johnson, you're going to get better, especially during the spring," Voss said. "The O-line improved a lot. There were some people who didn't play much last year that got a lot of reps this spring. You could see a difference in how people move and how people react. It was bad for us to get hurt; it's never fun to get injured like that and get surgery, but the fact the rest of the line got better, it's good for everybody."
It's not like Georgia Tech's offensive line couldn't execute at all last year -- the Jackets averaged 273 rushing yards. But the front five didn't always give quarterback Josh Nesbitt enough time to throw, wasn't consistent about protecting him well or cutting down the linebackers and opening up lanes for the talented backfield.
Jonathan Dwyer can make defenders miss, but if the line makes its blocks, he can be that much better. Voss said there's no ceiling for the Yellow Jackets this fall, as long as everyone executes their assignments, starting up front.
"As an offensive line, the team will go as we do," he said. "If the offensive line plays well, we could have one of the great seasons at Georgia Tech. And if we don't do well, it could be a huge disappointment. We understand that."