Josh Jelesky feared the worst.
Really, he thought, what good could come from being summoned to the head coach’s office at 5 a.m. on just the second day of preseason football camp?
It turned out he was just getting a line change.
The 6-foot-5, 280-pounder spent his first three years at Vanderbilt on the defensive line. With a new coaching staff worried about the depth — or lack thereof — on the offensive line, Jelesky crossed the line of scrimmage and began protecting the quarterback instead of attacking him.
“Whatever helps the team, so I was OK with it. But, yeah, it was pretty weird at first,” Jelesky said.
From that August morning when he first began blocking, Jelesky has made huge strides — big enough that he is expected to make his first start at right guard on Saturday when Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4 SEC) travels to Florida (4-4, 2-4) for an 11:21 a.m. (SEC Network) kickoff.
Having not played on the offensive line since seventh grade, Jelesky, a fourth-year junior, has impressed the coaches enough to move ahead of sophomore Mylon Brown on the depth chart.
“Those guys were rotating a decent amount of reps together, and we just see [Jelesky] getting better every single week,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “Mylon has done well. It is not like Mylon is not going to play. Mylon is still going to play but probably a reversal of roles, constantly trying to motivate our guys. ... [Jelesky] is starting to get a little more comfortable and getting more confident.”
Saturday, in fact, will mark Jelesky’s first start on either side of the ball. He redshirted as a freshman, was used sparingly in 11 games in 2009 and came off the bench in all 12 contests, recording 15 tackles, last year.
But with a deep defensive line rotation that features Rob Lohr, Colt Nichter, T.J. Greenstone and others, Franklin didn’t want to waste Jelesky’s body by having him sit on the bench. So he became the coach's top candidate to switch over to the offensive line. Plus, Franklin said he was more of a viable option because of his build — he is thicker than defensive end Walker May (235 pounds) and taller than defensive tackle Vince Taylor (6-foot-1).
Jelseky, a native of Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, admits it wasn’t the easiest of transitions as he had to learn new technique, jargon and develop a different mindset.
In the spring, he worked with defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who was instilling a new approach of getting off the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible.
“[On the defensive line] it is really all about firing off the ball and then you don’t really have to worry about the other guy necessarily. You are trying to get off the other guy,” Jelesky said. “And this [on the offensive line] I am supposed to stay on the guy, so it is a little different mentality of staying on someone instead of getting off of him. On defensive line, you are basically running the whole time, but on the offensive line you kind of have to keep your base the whole time [while blocking].
“I really didn’t know what was going on most of the time for the first couple weeks.”
He found a mentor in left guard Jabo Burrow, whose career ended earlier this season due to issues related to concussions. Plus, offensive line coach Herb Hand embraced the opportunity to work on a new project.
“What was nice for me as a coach, I looked at Josh as a lump of clay and I could mold him,” Hand said. “I didn’t have to have him unlearn some things, unlearn bad habits. Whatever we got out of him was going to be what we developed with him. So that was a positive with it. He was kind of a blank canvas in a way.”
Last weekend, that apprentice offensive lineman painted a perfect picture in the third quarter of a 31-28 loss to Arkansas. Jelesky came around from his position to spring a block on the left side, opening a hole for running back Zac Stacy, who raced 62 yards for a touchdown.
“I was looking for my guy and just happened to be right there,” Jelesky said. “I actually thought I didn’t do very well on the block and then I saw Zac take off. I was like, ‘Thank God.’ I wasn’t really sure. You never really know how well you do until you see the results of it. I was just really excited about that. Seeing him take off down the field is really exciting.”