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As Choice, Wheeler Prepare For Final Game, Johnson's Arrival Colors Program's Future

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

Ga. Tech (7-5) vs. Fresno St. (8-4), Dec. 31, 2 p.m., ESPN2

By Adam Van Brimmer
Morris News Service

December 18, 2007

ATLANTA – Georgia Tech will play in a bowl for the 11th straight season come New Year's Eve, but the game most Tech fans are looking forward to is still nine months away.

New coach Paul Johnson won't lead the Yellow Jackets against Fresno State at the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho.

"That's the current staff's team," Johnson said. "They've been with them all season."

Johnson didn't coach his former team, either. Navy, a program he led to five straight seasons of eight or more wins, took on Utah in the Dec. 20 Poinsettia Bowl.

Instead, Johnson will spend the remainder of the bowl season recruiting for Georgia Tech and assembling his coaching staff.

That means the Tech faithful must wait until the 2008 opener, scheduled for Aug. 30 against Jacksonville State, for the start of the Johnson era.

Jon Tenuta remained the head coach for the bowl game, provided he didn't take another job in the interim. He was rumored to be Bo Pelini's successor as Louisiana State's defensive coordinator, but Pelini, recently named Nebraska's head coach, agreed to stay at his LSU post through the Bowl Championship Series title game. The Jan. 7 championship pits the Tigers against Ohio State.

The rest of fired coach Chan Gailey's staff remains at work, too. All have contracts through June, and some likely will be retained by Johnson. Giff Smith, the recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach, is almost sure to stay. He played at Georgia Southern when Johnson was the offensive coordinator there and worked under Johnson in the late 1990s, also at GSU.

The Humanitarian Bowl will be the Yellow Jackets' last game running offensive coordinator John Bond's scheme. Johnson calls his own plays and will install some form of his triple-option offense this spring.

That could mean that the bowl will be the last for quarterback Taylor Bennett as the Jackets' starter. Bennett, who has one more year of eligibility remaining, is a pocket passer and lacks the mobility to run an option offense.

Tech's first commitment after the hiring of Johnson came from in-state quarterback Jaybo Shaw, an option QB who had been recruited by the Navy staff before pledging to Middle Tennessee. Shaw switched his commitment to Tech in mid-December, telling reporters that Johnson plans to continue with the triple-option attack while expanding the passing element far more than he did at Navy.

At the press conference introducing Johnson as the new coach, a reporter caught Bennett's attention, made an option-pitch motion and said, "You ready to do that?" Bennett's reply: "Don't even joke about it."

Bennett's job might have been in jeopardy this spring anyway. He struggled with his consistency all season, making his 19-for-29, 326-yard debut in last season's Gator Bowl seem like a fluke.

Bennett completed just 49 percent of his passes this season and averaged 170 yards per game. He threw nine interceptions to six touchdowns.

Freshman Josh Nesbitt, who played a series or two in most games this fall, would have challenged Bennett in the spring anyway, and Nesbitt could fit Johnson's system particularly well. The lone dual-threat quarterback on the roster, he averaged 6.4 yards per carry in his limited playing time this season. The majority of the play calls with him in the game were QB runs.

In theory, Nesbitt has the arm to match his legs. He threw for more than 5,000 yards in his final two seasons at in-state Greene County High and seems like the prototype for Johnson's offense.

"The (triple-option) offense has worked with the players we've had, so why wouldn't it work if those players are bigger and faster?" Johnson said. "We'll look at our players and see what fits them best and do what we can to win games."

Predictably, some Tech commitments weren't enamored with Johnson's plan to continue with the triple option, which piled up huge rushing statistics but small passing numbers at Navy. Heralded quarterback recruit Sean Renfree, out of Scottsdale, Ariz., immediately reneged on the Yellow Jackets. In-state wide receiver Chris Jackson, another heralded Tech commitment under Gailey, quickly said he would reconsider his options as well.

Meanwhile, as the public followed the recruiting dramas and looked forward to next season, the Yellow Jackets focused on their bowl game.

The Humanitarian Bowl will be the career finale for half of Tech's starters, plus punter Durant Brooks and kicker Travis Bell. A win in Boise would make this the first Tech team to post back-to-back eight-plus-win seasons since George O'Leary left as coach.

"Everybody's focused on winning this game," tailback Tashard Choice said.

The bowl will be the last chance to see Choice, the successful Oklahoma transfer, play in a Tech uniform. The ACC's leading rusher for the last two years, he will exhaust his eligibility in the bowl game.

Many feel Choice is among the top running backs ever at Tech. He's clearly the best since Robert Lavette ran for a school-record 4,066 yards over a four-year career in the early 1980s.

Considering that Choice spent only three seasons with the Yellow Jackets – and only two as the starter – and still may breach the 3,500-yard mark, some will argue that he is the greatest in school history. Choice has an outside chance at the program's single-season rushing record. He needs 252 yards against Fresno to equal Eddie Lee Ivery's mark of 1,562, set in 1978.

Another player who could be considered among Tech's greats, middle linebacker Philip Wheeler, will play his final game in the bowl, too. Wheeler led Tech in tackles during the regular season with 78 and also recorded six sacks. He's already mentioned in the same breath as the Jackets' other top linebackers, including Keith Brooking, Marco Coleman and Daryl Smith.

Wheeler and Choice both have NFL futures, as do several other Tech seniors. Safeties Jamal Lewis and Djay Jones, linebacker Gary Guyton and defensive ends Adamm Oliver and Darrell Robertson all could be drafted in April. Brooks, the punter, recently won the Ray Guy Award, which goes to college football's top punter.

On top of being the sendoff for Tech's seniors, the Humanitarian Bowl gives the Yellow Jackets a chance to break a bowl losing streak. Tech is one of only six schools to play in a bowl game in each of the last 10 years, but it has lost the last two. West Virginia beat the Jackets in last season's Gator Bowl, and Utah hammered them in the 2005 Emerald Bowl.

The Yellow Jackets owe Fresno State some payback, too. The Bulldogs beat Georgia Tech 30-21 in the 2002 Silicon Valley Classic.

Tech played in the Humanitarian Bowl the next season, blowing out Tulsa 52-10. That group of Yellow Jackets loved the trip, particularly with the way the city and its people embraced the game.



Starters (14)

PK Travis Bell, P Durant Brooks, RB Tashard Choice, FB Mike Cox, LB Gary Guyton, S Djay Jones, S Jamal Lewis, RG Nate McManus, DE Adamm Oliver, LG Matt Rhodes, CB Avery Roberson, DE Darrell Robertson, OC Kevin Tuminello, LB Philip Wheeler

Other Contributors

CB Pat Clark, S Joe Gaston, RB Rashaun Grant


Offense (6)

Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2008 Class
QB Taylor Bennett 6-3/205 Sr.
WR James Johnson 6-0/190
WR Greg Smith 6-3/195 Jr.
TE Colin Peek 6-6/250
LT Andrew Gardner 6-6/298 Sr.
RT A.J. Smith 6-7/300

Defense (4)

DT Darryl Richard 6-4/285 *Sr.
DT Vance Walker 6-2/275 Sr.
LB Shane Bowen 6-1/225 Jr.
CB Jahi Word-Daniels 6-0/185 Sr.

Special Teams (0)


    • has utilized redshirt season
      ^ - six/more 2007 regular-season starts



OC Trey Dunmon, RB/KR Jonathan Dwyer, WR Correy Earls, RB/KR Jamaal Evans, PR Tyler Evans, OT Cord Howard, OT Jacob Lonowski, QB Josh Nesbitt, TE Brad Sellers, PR Andrew Smith, WR Demaryius Thomas, OG Dan Voss


DT Elris Anyaibe, LB Anthony Barnes, CB Morgan Burnett, LB Tony Clark, DE Robert Hall, DE Michael Johnson, DE Derrick Morgan, DS Bret White


Year ACC Overall Postseason
1998 7-1 (1) 10-2 Gator Bowl (W)
1999 5-3 (2) 8-4 Gator Bowl (L)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Peach Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 8-5 Seattle Bowl (W)
2002 4-4 (5) 7-6 Silicon Valley (L)
2003 4-4 (4) 7-6 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
2004 4-4 (6) 7-5 Champs Bowl (W)
2005 5-3 (3C) 7-5 Emerald Bowl (L)
2006 7-1 (1C) 9-5 Gator Bowl (L)
2007 4-4 (3C) 7-5 Humanitarian Bowl

ACC: 50-30 (.625)
Overall: 79-46 (.632)



Team 2007 Record^
Duke 1-11 (0-8)
Florida State 7-5 (4-4)
Miami 5-7 (2-6)
Virginia 9-3 (6-2)
Jacksonville State 6-5 (5-3)
Mississippi State 7-5 (4-4)


Boston College 10-3 (6-2)
Clemson 9-3 (5-3)
North Carolina 4-8 (3-5)
Virginia Tech 11-2 (7-1)
Georgia 10-2 (6-2)

^ - before bowl games (conference)

Note: Finalized times/dates TBA.