September 20, 2004 ATLANTA It may be too soon to judge, but early in his sophomore season quarterback Reggie Ball has not yet quieted the critics who believe that Tech will need another quarterback long before Ball's eligibility is exhausted. Most schools passed on Ball as a quarterback on the recruiting trail, pursuing him as an athlete instead because of his size. Ball, 5-10, chose Tech in part because the Yellow Jackets said he could compete for the quarterback position, but even the Tech staff admittedly was concerned about his prospects behind center.
"I thought he had a chance to play quarterback," Tech coach Chan Gailey said, "but I thought he would end up moving to another position."
Those thoughts were largely put aside last season, when Ball earned the starting job as a true freshman with his confidence, decisiveness and athleticism. Most of all, he took advantage of an extremely weak crop of other quarterbacks competing for the job. Ball did some impressive things in 2003, setting Tech freshman records for passing yards and total offense, leading the Yellow Jackets to a 7-6 record and earning ACC rookie of the year honors.
Hidden under those impressive numbers, though, were some disturbing trends. Ball showed problems with touch and accuracy, plus a tendency to become overly emotional.
Ball completed barely 50 percent of his passes (181-of-350) last fall and tossed more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). In the Yellow Jackets' six losses, he threw nine interceptions. In his final five games, two of which he left with injuries, Ball really struggled. He threw five picks and just one touchdown, as Tech lost three of its last five.
It all left a differing of opinion in the Tech community. Some felt that, given time, Ball only would improve on what he had done. Remember, many insisted, it even took Tech legend Joe Hamilton some time to become comfortable at the ACC level. Others, however, saw the same flaws in Ball that the recruiters found, flaws they thought he would have trouble correcting no matter how many snaps he took.
Many of Ball's critics believed that backup Patrick Carter, who came in with Ball but redshirted last season, would challenge and possibly beat out Ball for the job this spring. That didn't happen, in part because of Carter's penchant for getting hurt, though Ball's ever-increasing comfort level with the offense and team's leadership also helped.
Perhaps realizing Ball's limitations and his late-season struggles, team officials did not give approval for him to participate in a photo shoot for a local football preview that planned to accentuate the "face of the program." Junior defensive end Eric Henderson, a far more accomplished player, got the nod instead.
Ball certainly worked hard in the offseason to improve his knowledge of the offense and opposing defenses. He tweaked his delivery to shorten his release. He also improved his drop steps.
However, in the first three games of 2004, the same problems that confronted Ball last season popped up again. In a shocking 34-13 loss to lowly North Carolina, Ball turned the ball over four times, including three interceptions. Two of the picks, including a fourth-quarter one that ended any chance of a Tech comeback, were horrible throws and decisions. Overall, Ball threw five interceptions in the Yellow Jackets' first three games.
Against Clemson, Ball after being sacked six times began ducking away from throws and leaving the pocket to avoid getting hit. He came alive in the final six minutes of the game, rallying Tech to victory, although he got a lot of help from the Tigers.
Meanwhile, the addition of 6-4 freshman receiver Calvin Johnson has helped and hindered Ball's ability and perhaps displayed one of his biggest flaws. Because of Johnson's amazing skills, in particular his ability to out-jump defensive backs for the deep ball, Gailey has incorporated the "jump ball" pass into the offense. It's really just a fade, and when it works, as it did against single-coverage at Clemson, it's a thing of beauty. But the offense already has gone to that well too many times, as Ball was intercepted on the play in the season opener against Division I-AA Samford and again versus UNC.
Ball and Gailey talk often about giving the receiver a chance to make a play.
"Are you giving a 6-5 receiver a chance to make a play, or are you forcing it?" Gailey said. "You tell (Ball) give the guy a chance to make a play, and then you can't yell at him for throwing it up there."
That's true. But Ball continues to underthrow Johnson and the other receivers, forcing them to come back for the ball and try to out-fight defensive backs for possession. Ball hasn't been able to put the ball on a receiver's outside shoulder to give him a chance to fight off the defensive back. Nor has he been able to lead the receiver to a spot, so that the offensive player has an advantage on the defender.
Even on the successful plays, including Ball's first touchdown pass to Johnson in the Clemson game, it was the receiver making the play. Even Ball called the pass "terrible."
"I've been trying to give the receivers more of a chance, and I'm not trying to be so perfect," Ball said. "I think last year I was trying to be too perfect. This year I'm putting the ball out there, and I'm telling the receivers to make the play."
The deep ball, something Tech worked on extensively in the offseason, seems to have become a crutch. Throw it up and let the receiver go get it. Pay little attention to exactly where the ball needs to be placed, just throw it up there.
QB Cupboard Severely Lacking
Despite his many imperfections, Ball certainly gives the Yellow Jackets their best chance to win right now. He is the most comfortable with the offense, has the most experience, runs the ball well and can make many of the throws needed. Nobody else on the Tech roster can even come close to that description.
But is Ball the quarterback to get Tech over its inconsistencies and middling stature in the new ACC? Can a team be consistent when its quarterback isn't? That's the question the coaching staff must answer during the rest of this season and perhaps beyond.
Carter, a fantastic athlete, has shown flashes in practice, but he hasn't been consistent or healthy very often. The program's other quarterbacks, unheralded true freshmen Taylor Bennett and Kyle Manley, appeared a bit overwhelmed during fall practice. Highly touted Texas recruit Todd Walker probably is coming to Atlanta next fall he's wavered on his commitment at times, and he's another guy many major programs project at a different position but is Gailey willing to turn the offense over to a true freshman again?
If the Yellow Jackets appear headed toward another average season, say 6-5, Gailey will face a very difficult quandary. Does he stick with Ball, an experienced but still inconsistent quarterback? Or does he see what one of the other quarterbacks has to offer?
Ball is popular among his teammates and, unless he really, really struggled through the remainder of the season, Gailey might not be able to make a move for external reasons. Fans are expecting the program to begin turning the corner. That means now.
Ball still has some games to turn things around. After all, Hamilton took quite some time before he truly grasped things. And Ball, with his competitive fire and swagger, is a great fit personality-wise at quarterback.
Tech just needs to see more consistent results and growth from everyone, really, but Ball is definitely the best place to start.