July 28, 2003 ATLANTA Georgia Tech's defensive line, once considered the team's biggest strength, is a potential liability entering preseason practice.
In the spring, the Yellow Jackets had all four returning starters along the line, plus former All-American defensive end Greg Gathers coming back from his kidney ailment. The line seemed well-stocked, even two-deep.
How times have changed. Last spring's 10-man academic disaster after exhaustive research, the Sports Journal has been unable to find a larger single instance of player attrition in ACC history cost Tech starting defensive end Tony Hargrove, arguably the team's best defensive player, and tackle Alfred Malone. Backup Terron Pullen, who impressed in the spring before injuring his leg, also was lost. Meanwhile, after receiving a medical hardship last year, Gathers still has not been cleared for full-contact drills.
All of this leaves the Yellow Jackets' line young, thin and inexperienced. Gathers (6-1, 270) is listed as the starter at one end, but no one is sure how much the school's all-time sacks leader will be able to give. He has expressed confidence in returning to the field at his highest level.
It's going to be very difficult for him ever to be 100 percent at Tech, Tech coach Chan Gailey said at the ACC Football Kickoff. He might be 90 or 95 percent, but it might be another year before he's at 100 percent. We can't expect too much.
Sophomore Eric Henderson (6-3, 265), a freshman All-American last season, returns as a potential break-out candidate. Junior Chirod Williams, a seldom-used player in 2002, is the top backup defensive end. The team's next two options are true freshmen Adamm Oliver and Joe Anoai. No ACC team finds itself in such a frightening situation.
Oliver and Anoai, along with true freshmen tackles Mansfield Wrotto and LeShawn Newberry, all are expected to play along the line, which is considered one of the toughest positions for true freshmen to make an impact. Wrotto and Newberry, both 310 pounds, provide the bulk that Tech's starters in the interior are missing.
Returning starter Travis Parker (6-5, 270) and redshirt freshman Brad Brezina (6-2, 275) aren't ideal tackles. Backup Omar Billy (6-2, 270) played in just two games last season.
It's clearly a trouble spot for the Yellow Jackets, leaving line coach Glenn Spencer with a monumental task. Working against Spencer is the new NCAA rule that forbids teams from conducting a three-day freshman camp. Instead, the newcomers will report with the upperclassmen, leaving little time for an introduction to college football before being thrown into the action.
Gailey, trying to accentuate the positive in what has been a very negative offseason, said the new freshman rule wouldn't have much impact on Tech. The coach said the Yellow Jackets' obvious need to rely on newcomers means they'll get plenty of repetitions in the early days of practice, a benefit that wouldn't occur on a more experienced team. That's certainly looking at the glass half-full.
Tech's coaches have estimated that as many as 15 or 16 of the 20-member incoming class, one that drew very few raves on signing day, will play this fall as true freshmen. Along with the four defensive linemen, running back Rashaun Grant and cornerback Kenny Scott will be the most likely to get on the field. At least one of Tech's three linebacker signees Nick Moore, KaMichael Hall and Phillip Wheeler also should see some playing time.
Meanwhile, Gailey reiterated that rookie quarterbacks Reggie Ball and Patrick Carter will be in the mix for the starting positions. Carter, who has been around the team all summer working out, holds the edge right now over Ball. The top job, however, remains sophomore Damarius Bilbo's to lose.
The losses of 10 players to academics after the spring semester likely will have far-reaching effects on the program. The academic side already has been shaken up, and Gailey admits the losses will alter his recruiting strategy.
The coach has staunchly defended his approach of getting around 20 signees each year, redshirting them, keeping them in school and letting them develop. He said that, in the wake of the suspensions, Tech likely will sign a full class of 25 for the next few seasons, but he didn't say the change would be permanent.
Gailey still would like to get back to 20 each season in the future, a noble practice that happens regularly at places like Duke (great students, high graduation rates, low attrition) but not at many schools whose football programs are regulars in the national polls.
At most schools, in fact, the Gailey strategy seems flawed. Injuries, academics and basic attrition inevitably take their toll on a college football team. There is a reason the NCAA allows 25 per season but just 85 total. (Remember, 25 times four is 100, so those extra players must be going somewhere.) Programs lose players, be it to the NFL or for any other of a host of reasons.
Gailey, who already faces academic restrictions that are more burdensome than those used by most of his opponents, would be wise to think in terms of 25 scholarships per year for the foreseeable future. As a team picked to finish eighth in the ACC this season and with the arrivals of Miami and Virginia Tech next year the Yellow Jackets can't afford to hurt themselves by bringing in less than full recruiting classes.
Finally, believe it or not, the bad news might not be over yet. Tech could lose more players, including more starters, to academics after summer session ends. Gailey did nothing to quash that speculation at the Football Kickoff event.
We've got guys, he said, who are having to work (in summer school) to be eligible.
Any further personnel losses could be devastating for an already-thin team. Tech has quality depth along the offensive line and at linebacker. There is some depth at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and in the secondary, but the quality of that depth can be questioned. Along the defensive line, there is no depth, and the kicking game is a huge question mark.
Any more losses, and Gailey who has remained upbeat throughout a very difficult 18 months on the job may be questioning why he left the NFL for this craziness.
Who'll Fill Expanded Stadium?
The Yellow Jackets, in trying to keep up with the ACC's facilities race, will unveil the expanded Bobby Dodd Stadium this season. The reconstruction, part of a $70 million facilities upgrade package on campus, expands the overall capacity to 55,000. Tech added 15,678 new seats in the North end zone to form a three-sided bowl.
The upgrades also include football facilities that overlook the playing field. The project, which received a huge push from former coach George O'Leary, has moved the Yellow Jackets' digs to among the top facilities in the ACC.
The potentially embarrassing question now: Can Tech sell it out? Tech actually lowered the capacity in the stadium in the 1980s in an attempt to give the team a better home-field advantage. But with a growing season-ticket base and a stellar home schedule (Auburn, Clemson, N.C. State, Maryland, UNC, Georgia) this season, the Yellow Jackets have reason to believe they can fill the new stadium.
In one of its many efforts to fill the stadium in 2003, the school is offering half-season ticket packages for less than $100. Some fans are fearful that Auburn and Georgia faithful will buy up the mini-packs, something Tech officials acknowledged could happen.
With the resurgent Falcons stealing some of the sports dollar in Atlanta, plus the steady stream of bad news for the Yellow Jackets in the offseason, Tech officials were pleased in late July with the more than 30,000 season tickets they had sold so far.