The quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends are labeled as skill positions. But the guys in the trenches have as much of a role to play in a football game.
Duke’s offensive line has been one of the team’s best position groups over the last several years, first seeing guard Laken Tomlinson become the Blue Devils’ highest pick at the time in the NFL Draft since 1987 when he was selected 28th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2015. The offensive linemen—some of the biggest, strongest, and toughest athletes—were one of Duke’s strengths in its bowl years from 2012 to 2018. Arriving just at the end of that historic stretch was Jack Wohlabaugh, a transfer from Ohio State who started as a reserve but quickly became an anchor of Duke’s offensive attack.
“We're such a close group and I think we all love playing that role of going out on the field and being the most intimidating people,” Wohlabaugh said. “You're blocking someone against their will and pushing them around.”
Wohlabaugh is now the seasoned vet with younger players like John Gelotte joining him on the offensive line.
‘Treat every day like they’re already a pro’
Wohlabaugh, an Akron, Ohio native, stayed in-state for college, joining the Buckeyes as the seventh-ranked center in the 2016 class. After spending two seasons on the Big Ten powerhouse bench, he followed his elder teammate Evan Lisle who headed to Durham after graduating in 2016.
“[Lisle] really enjoyed it [at Duke] and just wanted a fresh start and came here and it was a good decision.”
To some, transferring from a football powerhouse to Duke might look like a questionable career choice on the surface—but to Wohlabaugh the switch was natural. He was able to bring leadership and winning experience to a Blue Devil team that was featuring a redshirt junior quarterback named Daniel Jones and trying to win a third straight bowl game.
“One of the main takeaways I got from being at Ohio State was just being around those big time players in the locker room every day,” the 6-foot-4, 305-pound lineman said of his time in Columbus, during which the Buckeyes went 23-4 from 2016 to 2017. “They treat every day like they're already a pro and how they handle their business on and off the field was definitely my biggest takeaway.”
Wohlabaugh took over at center in the 2018 season when Zach Harmon went down with an injury, and he contributed to one of the Blue Devils’ best offenses of all time that year. The high usage in 2018 and 2019 likely led to the first of two major injuries from which Wohlabaugh has had to recover.
Duke’s 2019 season welcomed multiple freshmen that are now members of this year’s starting offensive line, one being 6-foot-6 tight end-turned-offensive tackle John Gelotte. Gelotte won’t admit it, but he has the assumed offensive line mentality of “I will destroy you.” He has the build that would suggest it, too, as the redshirt sophomore now stands at an imposing 6-foot-7 and 295 pounds, making him one of the tallest players on the team.
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“I just try to play as physical as I can every play and dominate whoever's in front of me,” he said.
But Gelotte also knows the role of the unit when it comes to winning games, adding, “We're not always the ones not trying to get in the newspaper or on the news. We're just there to get a running back a bunch of yards. We're not looking for any stars or anything like that—we just want to get the job done.”
As Gelotte was getting accustomed to life on the Duke line, studying under now-Las Vegas Raiders lineman Devery Hamilton, Wohlabaugh disappeared from the sidelines.
O Captain, my captain
Wohlabaugh reaggravated an earlier ankle injury toward the end of the 2019 season, missing the final three games.
Surgery was the prognosis, but in a Nov. 2019 press conference, head coach David Cutcliffe said, “I think we had to sedate him to get him to agree to surgery. I’m dead serious.”
The resilient Wohlabaugh recovered, but before the opening kickoff of the 2020 season, Duke got more bad news. In a September practice, just over a week before the season kicked off, Wohlabaugh tore his ACL, ripping away the season from the Rimington Award hopeful. The team knew how much Wohlabaugh meant to the success of the offense, and it showed when the Blue Devils voted for the center as a team captain.
“I was really working towards and wanted to be a captain. I think I would have been one even without being hurt. And once I got hurt, I kind of thought, you know, probably not going to be one—I mean why would they vote for a guy who's going to be out all season to be captain,” Wohlabaugh said of the team vote. “I took it as a big sign of respect from all the guys and that's one big brotherhood.”
Due to safety concerns around COVID-19 and his surgically-repaired knee, the captain spent most of the season completely removed from the team during rehab and was not seen on the sidelines all year, though he took the coin toss at the season finale against Florida State.
Jack is coming back
First-year offensive line coach Greg Frey had a mighty task on his hands last season in finding a replacement for Wohlabaugh, one of college football’s top centers—and then later had to replace backup Will Taylor due to a season-ending injury of his own. Through the process, Frey was the coach the line needed.
“He's a coach that we know we can listen to and trust that what he does and what he says and tells us to do works,” Wohlabaugh said.
In 2020, with several injuries propelling Gelotte and other younger players up the depth chart, the South Carolina native had some chances—a total of just 83 snaps—to do the “dominating” he loves. The line as a whole impressed, allowing now-senior running back and preseason All-ACC selection Mataeo Durant to break out, though it allowed the ACC’s second worst sack total of 37.
From the backseat during Duke’s 2-9 campaign, Wohlabaugh had his eyes on a return to the Blue Devils’ front the whole time. Even before his Sept. 15 surgery, he announced he would return for his sixth year of eligibility.
“I definitely lead by example,” Duke’s now-healthy starting center said. “[being a leader from a distance] is something I had to try to adjust to but at the same time, not get used to.”
Big Bad John
With Wohlabaugh practically a shoo-in for the starting spot, Cutcliffe turned his focus to the aspiring starting guards and tackles. He especially admired what Gelotte brought during fall camp, referring to the right tackle as “a beast” and “a physical specimen.” In an August press conference, he even referenced the 1961 Jimmy Dean song, “Big Bad John,” when talking about Gelotte.
The lyrics also match up almost perfectly. “He stood six-foot-six and weighed two-forty-five,” Dean wrote of a folk hero. “Everybody knew ya didn't give no lip to big John.”
When asked about it, Gelotte said, chuckling, “I don’t know much about that.”
Regardless of whether Gelotte adopts the nickname, Duke’s line has the pieces it needs. Wohlabaugh—now approaching the one-year mark since knee surgery—brings the veteran experience and leadership and Gelotte—the starting right tackle—brings a humble ferocity. The big guys up front can become one of the Blue Devils’ strengths, providing space for the “skill players” to do their work. But for all they have done to get to this point, this year’s offensive line embodies skill—so much so that Cutcliffe even moved offensive tackle Ron Carr to the defensive line to free up the overflowing depth chart.
“I don't think from the ones to twos there’s any fall off,” Gelotte said. “It's all of us working together and we're all really good this year.”
Wohlabaugh said he and his fellow linemen “love being one of the most fun groups and having a good time, and everyone wants to be around us.”
“Everyone” being everyone with one exception—the opponents’ defense.
For the rest of our preseason coverage for Duke, click here.