September 8, 2003
ATLANTA Most colleges wrote him off as too small to play quarterback. Some wanted him to play defensive back or return kicks. But Reggie Ball, infused with confidence from his father since he was born, refused. He wanted a chance to play quarterback, the position he'd played since he was a youngster, since he beat out the coaches' sons, since he'd led his youth football team to a national title in 1994. He felt he deserved a chance. Late in his recruitment, only Georgia Tech, Auburn and Florida State, among the high-profile Division I-A programs, were willing to give him even that. Then FSU backed off. Then Auburn, one phone call away from landing the 5-11, 192-pounder, stopped calling. All that was left was home-state Tech and Chan Gailey, who was so impressed by the youngster's speech at a high school awards ceremony that he gushed about him to all of his assistants. And even Gailey had his doubts about Ball playing QB in college, telling media members before fall practice that Ball would be considered as a kick returner if his first choice didn't work out. I'd be lying, Gailey said, if I said it was a lock at quarterback. Then Ball changed all that. He won the starting job in August with his strong decision-making and infectious confidence. He provided a spark, something desperately missing from incumbent A.J. Suggs and one-time projected starter Damarius Bilbo, something the offense heck, the program needed more than anything else. Gailey often has said that a quarterback in his system needs to be a strong decision-maker, and neither of his options last year did that very well. With the starting job open, it was Ball clearly the No. 4 QB (he also was behind classmate Patrick Carter) entering fall practice who stole the show. Suddenly, the only coach to believe in Ball had embraced him as the starter. Ball more than held his own through the first two games of the season, leading the Yellow Jackets to an improbable 17-3 upset of then-No. 17 Auburn at home. Almost as importantly, the Tech fan base has rallied around the kid, who reminds so many of former Tech great Joe Hamilton. The fans chanted Ball's name and carried him off the field after the Auburn game. He is much more than a quarterback to them. He is the future, a reason to keep watching, keep coming to games, keep being a fan. By his own admission, Ball still has plenty of work to do. His touch on the deep ball is outstanding, but his accuracy on medium throws or while on the run leaves something to be desired. He has the necessary arm strength and mobility, but his size has worked against him. He gets balls tipped at the line of scrimmage, and he has to move to find passing lanes. He's picking up the offense, but Tech is implementing things slowly. From the start, though, it's been a perfect match the quarterback considered too small with the program that desperately needed something big. So far, so good.
Tenuta Earning Large Paychecks One voice towers above all others at Tech practices. It's that of defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. It's not hard to tell when Tenuta is angry, which is often. He curses. He growls. He screams. Quietly, however, Tenuta continues to establish himself as one of the better defensive coordinators in the nation. In the offseason, Gailey shuffled his staff, leaving Tenuta with just two defensive assistants and giving him even more responsibility. (Tenuta also is coaching defensive backs, as he has at many of his coaching stops.) The move has paid off for the Yellow Jackets in a big way. The guy can flat-out coach, and this might be his best job. While others around the ACC make excuses about youth, inexperience and attrition, Tenuta gives Tech a chance to win week after week by finding quick players and teaching them in a way that enables them to play fast, as coaches like to say. The Jackets have plenty of excuses on defense this fall, but Tenuta hasn't mentioned them. Tech lost two starters (Alfred Malone and emerging star Tony Hargrove) and a top backup (Terron Pullen) to academic problems during the offseason. End Greg Gathers, the school's all-time leader in sacks, was not cleared to play because of his on-going fight with a kidney ailment. Even with three new starters along the line, including a converted linebacker and a true freshman, and two safeties with zero combined starts between them, Tenuta has molded a competitive defense. He never complained once. His only negative uttering in the offseason referred to the fact that the line, which had been together for the final eight games of the 2002 season and all of spring practice, had been broken up. In the first week of the season, he developed an excellent game plan for stopping Brigham Young's pass-happy scheme. In the second week, he crafted and executed a brilliant plan against run-dominant Auburn. The Jackets' awesome performance against the Tigers earned high praise from Gailey. I think that's the best defensive plan and execution of a plan I think I've ever been around, Gailey said. That was great. It was really super. Tenuta, 46, keeps an extremely low profile. He does media interviews only grudgingly and will chew up an unprepared reporter in a heartbeat. He's not on the sidelines during games, which usually keeps the cameras away from him. (ESPN still finds him in the press box occasionally.) His lack of passion for recruiting and his somewhat abrasive personality likely have kept him from getting more interviews for head coaching positions, but he always has had his eye on the NFL anyway. He's well-traveled, having been the defensive coordinator at Marshall, Kansas State, Southern Methodist, Ohio State and North Carolina (2001). UNC coach John Bunting's only good defense in his three seasons in Chapel Hill came with Tenuta running the show. There are conflicting stories behind Tenuta's hasty departure from Carolina, but Gailey clearly understands his importance to Tech. With a $225,000 per year salary, Tenuta is among the highest-paid coordinators in the nation. He's the best-paid assistant in the entire ACC, and he makes $100,000 more than any other Tech aide. Tenuta probably should be getting some kickbacks from all the players he's moved along to the NFL. While he coached the defensive backs at Ohio State, Tenuta at one point had sent every one of his secondary starters to the next level, including first-rounders Shawn Springs, Antoine Winfield, Ahmed Plummer and Nate Clements. During his only year at UNC, he showcased linemen Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims. This fall, he's put the emphasis on linebackers Keyaron Fox and Daryl Smith. Under Tenuta's tutelage, end Eric Henderson also has begun to blossom. Without size or great depth at his disposal the Jackets have redshirt freshmen and true freshmen all over their two-deep Tenuta has relied heavily on movement and blitzes to generate pressure, and he's doing so without leaving his defensive backs all alone. If the Yellow Jackets, counted out defensively before the season started, continue to string together quality performances, maybe Tenuta will even be able to smile.