By Brian Murphy,
Macon (Ga.) Telegraph
April 21, 2003 ATLANTA Chan Gailey opened his second spring practice at Georgia Tech with an emphasis on making his Yellow Jackets tougher, mentally and physically, than they were during last year's 7-6 season. Displeased with the way the 2002 campaign ended, particularly in the team's effort and execution, he ran practices heavy on contact, hitting and fundamentals and light on formations and gadgetry.
Unfortunately, the coach ended camp with a spring game that featured more inconsistent play from his quarterbacks and nine false starts from a patched-together offensive line that was missing several projected starters. In other words, it was almost an exact repeat of last season. That wasn't how Gailey was hoping to re-energize the fan base and his team after demoralizing losses to Georgia and Fresno State (in the Silicon Valley Football Classic) to close out last season.
With injuries sidelining left guard Leon Robinson, left tackle Nat Dorsey and running back Tony Hollings, the Tech offense set about implementing a new scheme. The departure of offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to Maryland triggered Gailey to take over Tech's play-calling duties, something he said in the past he wouldn't do.
The subsequent restructuring of the staff, including the hiring of former Gailey assistant Buddy Geis to coach wide receivers, gave the Yellow Jackets a new feel in the spring. With Geis, quarterbacks coach Patrick Nix and Gailey all having a hand in the offense, it took a while for players to know where to turn for answers.
But the staff began implementing the new principles quickly, showing players film of the offense from Gailey's days with the Cowboys and Dolphins of the NFL. The coaches simplified the terminology in Tech's scheme and limited the number of plays to gain extra repetitions on the plays that were installed. The players, almost to a man, applauded the changes, often indicating that they weren't thinking as much about their responsibilities as they had in the past.
We went ahead and put it in. There's obviously quite a bit that's not in yet, but we put in what we planned to put in this spring, Gailey said. We may have left out four or five plays, but not much.
Early indications are that Gailey's offense will feature more two-back sets than O'Brien's (and before him, Ralph Friedgen's) did. The Yellow Jackets also threw the deep ball effectively in the spring game, something they worked on extensively during practices. With speedy receivers LeKeldrick Bridges and Jonathan Smith, Tech will look to get behind defenses.
Just who will be throwing those deep balls is as unknown now as it was before spring practice began.
Sophomore Damarius Bilbo, used in limited spurts and condensed packages last year, took nearly 80 percent of the snaps in March and April as the staff tried to get a grasp of exactly what he could handle. They still don't know. Bilbo, an athletic 6-3, 225-pounder, can run and chuck the ball a long way, but can he truly direct an effective offense?
This spring, Bilbo gave conflicting glimpses. He clearly had a better handle on this offense then he did on last year's version, but he didn't show the ability to play long stretches without committing costly turnovers.
Good at times. Bad at times, Gailey said of Bilbo. You've got to eliminate the bad in order to play.
Said Bilbo: I need to learn and make decisions quicker. I know where I'm going with the reads, but I've got to do it quicker.
Gailey and the staff would like Bilbo to put it together quicker. They gave him every opportunity to win the job in the spring, but his continued inconsistency essentially left the job open until the fall. Incumbent A.J. Suggs, after seemingly losing Gailey's confidence in the Silicon Valley game, bided his time in camp, remaining upbeat and certain that his coach's promise to keep the job open means he'll have a shot at it in the fall.
It was hard for (one quarterback to win the job) to happen unless Damarius just jumped out there a long way, because we were giving him the majority of the reps, Gailey said. It wasn't fair to evaluate (anyone else) a lot because we gave D-Bo the majority of the snaps to see how he could handle it. If D-Bo did it, good. If he didn't, then we'd continue to evaluate.
Tech will continue to evaluate in the fall, when true freshmen Patrick Carter and Reggie Ball provide additional options. Gailey and whoever is at quarterback can only hope Robinson (hand), Dorsey (shoulder) and Hollings (knee) enter the mix as well.
The right side of the line jelled in the spring, but without Robinson and Dorsey the left side was exposed, especially in pass protection. Tech doesn't have any depth along the line, meaning the health of Robinson and Dorsey is equally as important as a return to form by Hollings, the nation's leading rusher last season before he blew out his knee.
Sophomore tailback Michael Sampson and defensive end-turned-fullback Michael Matthews he made the move after Jimmy Dixon broke his ankle looked solid in the backfield, but the coaching staff is counting on Hollings.
If (Hollings) is back, I don't know, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said, when asked about the defense having to carry the load early in the season. That's how much faith the team has in Hollings, who attended most practices and was his usual smiling, talkative self.
Tenuta had to deal with injuries, too. Starting middle linebacker Daryl Smith missed all of the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason, and defensive end Greg Gathers who missed all of last season with a kidney ailment sat out all contact drills.
But Tenuta may have found some players in linebackers Kingi McNair and Gerris Wilkerson and cornerbacks Reuben Houston and Dennis Davis. Tenuta, who is now coaching defensive backs in addition to running the defense, also said he was happy with what he saw from new starting safeties Dawan Landry and James Butler.
With the entire front four returning and six of the front seven back, the defense may have to carry what appears to be an inconsistent offense early, regardless of Hollings' status.
I just know the defense has to stop people, Tenuta said. If that's pressure, that's pressure.
Pressure surely will be on the entire program after last season's ending. With a tough schedule and unanswered questions on offense, even the most optimistic fans are trying to find silver linings.
Gailey, usually mild-mannered, lit into his team after one mid-spring practice, showing a level of anger he typically keeps inside. The tirade there was no other way to describe it seemed to energize the team, but Gailey isn't one to scream and yell his team to victory.
Instead, he'll need to hope that the toughness he so desperately tried to install this spring took hold. That's just one more question that won't be answered until the fall.