November 3, 2003
ATLANTA Though Georgia Tech constantly is referred to as a young team, the Yellow Jackets are leaning heavily on seniors in several key areas, and they have gotten very little production from the reserves in those units. So as much as this season, one in which the Yellow Jackets have rewritten expectations several times, is viewed as a building year, next season also may be a challenging one in some very important areas, especially wide receiver and linebacker. The Yellow Jackets will return seven starters next season. In addition, starting defensive end Gerris Wilkinson, an admirable stand-in this year at a position low on available talent, probably will replace senior Ather Brown at outside linebacker. Wilkinson also could serve as a pass-rush specialist on the line in long-yardage situations. While any successful defense in the country would love to have seven starters back, the Yellow Jackets face the prospect of revamping their unit without linebackers Daryl Smith and Keyaron Fox, around whom this year's entire defense is built. In addition to Smith, Fox and Brown that's the Yellow Jackets' entire starting linebacker corps Tech also will lose solid cornerback Jonathan Cox. It's at linebacker, though, where the Yellow Jackets will have to start from scratch. Smith and Fox, true seniors from Tech's successful 2000 recruiting class under George O'Leary, have started for a combined seven seasons at Tech. For some fans, it's hard to remember the Yellow Jackets' defense without them. In the aggressive scheme of second-year defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, Smith and Fox are responsible for stopping the run, dropping into pass coverage and getting the defense properly positioned at all times. They're asked to do just about everything rush the passer, cover tailbacks in the flat, etc. at various times, and they've done it very well over the past two seasons. Neither comes off the field very often, and both deserve All-ACC consideration for their efforts this fall. Tenuta, by the way, could present Gailey with another very difficult offseason challenge. After a successful one-year stop at North Carolina in 2001, Tenuta repeatedly (and deservedly) has attracted national attention on TV broadcasts during his time at Tech. His stock is so sky-high right now that he's likely to have plenty of options in the college (head coaching) and NFL (assistant coaching) ranks after the season, and he's had his eye on both of those options for several years. Not even Tenuta's $225,000 package with the Yellow Jackets, which makes him one of the highest-paid assistants in the nation, can compete with the money being thrown around in the professional ranks and even by some mid-level Division I-A programs looking for a head coach. Looking For Linebackers, Receivers As a result of the unusually heavy burdens placed on Smith and Fox this fall, those on the depth chart behind them haven't seen much action or generated much productivity. Wilkinson, a projected starter at outside linebacker before injuries and academic problems necessitated a move to end, provides one experienced, talented option. But where are the Yellow Jackets, with or without Tenuta, going to find two more? The staff has been high on Tabugbo Anyansi, a very fast linebacker, but Anyansi hasn't been able to stay healthy and hasn't gotten much action this season. He'll be a senior next year. If he does earn the opening-day start, it will be his first at the college level. Tech brought in three linebackers in this year's freshman class KaMichael Hall, Nick Moore and Phillip Wheeler to groom for important roles in the absence of the departing seniors. Hall and Moore, the more highly touted of the trio, have seen very limited action on defense. They have played on special teams, and one likely will start next year, possibly Moore in Smith's middle linebacker spot. No matter who wins the starting jobs, Tech assuming injuries don't strike in the final weeks of the season will enter next year with zero career starts (at linebacker) among its linebackers. The situation at wide receiver is not quite as desperate, but unlike in seasons past the Yellow Jackets do not have a top-flight wide receiver waiting in the wings to take over for a departed senior. Tech has strung together an impressive list of receivers in the last decade or so, with Harvey Middleton giving way to Dez White to Kelly Campbell to Kerry Watkins to Will Glover and now to Jonathan Smith. Each has put up impressive numbers, and Smith has developed into true freshman quarterback Reggie Ball's go-to receiver. But Smith, a senior, won't be around next season, when the Yellow Jackets will turn to Nate Curry and a cast of relative unknowns to get the job done. Curry has more speed than Smith, but he hasn't shown the same knack for getting things done and making big plays. Smith is slippery and elusive and a weapon in the short passing game Gailey prefers. Curry, a stretch-the-field type, isn't as good a fit for Tech's style. Converted quarterbacks Damarius Bilbo and Mark Logan, drop-prone Levon Thomas and seldom-used Xavier McGuire round out Tech's options for next year. There is a chance that Lekeldrick Bridges, who showed some flashes as a freshman last season but failed out of school in the spring, could return. But none of the candidates has shown an ability to be the main receiver. Meanwhile, highly touted freshman Rashaun Grant has been working with the scout team at wide receiver for much of the fall, but it's hard to imagine him not getting a shot at running back, his natural position. Elsewhere, Tech will be starting inexperienced players in 2004 at tight end, punter, kicker, center and possibly left tackle, if junior Nat Dorsey enters the NFL draft early. Clearly, if the Yellow Jackets are to carry over this year's success to next season, they'll need to do another excellent job of plugging holes, developing players and keeping everyone healthy. It won't be easy, but then again neither was this year's pleasant surprise. Hoops: Recruits, Guards Look Good Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt continues to bring in talented players to the Yellow Jackets' program. South Carolina power forward Ra'Sean Dickey recently committed to Tech, marking the second top-100 prospect Hewitt has landed for next year. The Yellow Jackets have four commitments thus far in Dickey, top-100 South Carolina guard Zam Frederick, Texas forward Jeremis Smith and North Carolina swingman Anthony Morrow. Tech also is considered the leader for top-15 prospect Randolph Morris, a 6-11 center who attends school in the Atlanta suburbs. He's a potential early NBA draft entrant, but if he does attend college that's an idea his parents are pushing hard Tech could be the place. The university has a strong program in computer science, the young player's potential major, and the basketball team has the advantage of having his older brother as a manager. Morris, who also likes Kentucky, recently canceled a visit to Louisville. The talented recruits are nice, but Hewitt, who got a substantial raise after last season, needs to start turning the talent into NCAA Tournament appearances. It's something he knows, and he feels this year's team though lacking in established post players could get back to the dance. That's where the Yellow Jackets ended up in Hewitt's 17-13 debut in 2000-01, but the team is 31-31 over the past two seasons. Hewitt loves his guards: Jarrett Jack, B.J. Elder, Marvin Lewis and Arizona transfer Will Bynum. In fact, the coach thinks so highly of them that he's said on numerous occasions that he'd match them up with any group of guards in the country. That kind of talk raises expectations, of course, as will another nationally ranked recruiting class. Even Hewitt, a well-liked coach in the area and with the alums, can rely on that kind of stuff for only so long.