September 27, 2005
ATLANTA -- A lot has been made, perhaps too much, about the makeup and character of this year's Georgia Tech football team.
Since coach Chan Gailey suffered his heart attack this spring, Tech constantly has referenced the seniors and upperclassmen on this year's team as the main reason why it can overcome even large obstacles. Through the tumultuous spring and summer, through the season-ending injury to starting defensive tackle Darryl Richard, the academic dismissal of starting defensive end Travis Parker and the drug-related arrest of starting cornerback Reuben Houston, the Yellow Jackets never lost focus, never deviated from the script.
In the early season, character and leadership were cited for the team's ability to upset Auburn and keep a level head through potential trap games versus North Carolina and Connecticut. They were cited so often, in fact, that you might have thought Character was an all-conference guard and Leadership a four-year starter at safety.
But it's easy to be assertive and positive when times are good. Following their recent 51-7 meltdown at Virginia Tech, the Jackets need character and leadership more than ever.
Unlike in the 51-7 loss at Georgia in 2002, which had been the worst defeat in Gailey's tenure until the Hokies got finished with them, the Yellow Jackets didn't quit in Blacksburg. On that fateful day in Athens, they did. They laid down for the rival Bulldogs, a vivid memory that's still at the heart of many fans' problems with Gailey, and they took it on the chin.
Though this year's result against the Hokies was the same -- eerily, to some -- the situation was different. This time, the Jackets were without injured defensive end Eric Henderson, whose nagging ankle injury is truly becoming a concern, and they plugged just-recovered quarterback Reggie Ball in against a fierce Virginia Tech defense.
This time, the Yellow Jackets didn't quit, give up or pack it in. On the sidelines in the final minutes, Ball, star receiver Calvin Johnson and senior running back P.J. Daniels -- the Jackets' version of the Cowboys' famous "Triplets" -- remained engaged, cheering on the second- and third-team offensive units on the field. This time, middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson and safety Chris Reis stayed out there until the end, or at least very close to the end, trying to make a play, trying to change momentum.
Perhaps that's where character and leadership show up the most, in the waning minutes of a blowout loss. With a chance to show the ACC that they were legitimate contenders, the Yellow Jackets flopped -- badly. Still, the team's leaders cared at the end. Even after the game, they didn't pull out the convenient excuses -- no practice time for Ball, a week's worth of distractions, etc. -- instead giving the Hokies all the credit and vowing to bounce back.
We'll see. We'll see if these Yellow Jackets don't follow up their stinkbomb with another uninspired performance, as the 2002 Tech team did. That bunch, even with a month to get over the ugly Georgia loss, lost to a depleted Fresno State team in the Silicon Valley Football Classic. The Jackets did not want to be there, and it showed.
Tech still has a chance for an impressive season. Winnable games against N.C. State and Duke are next -- can you say 5-1? -- before a road date in Miami. Want to see just how much character and leadership these Yellow Jackets have? Now is the time.
Rebuilt Offensive Front Exposed
There's a reason Tech's offensive line was the source of great concern this offseason. The line, while athletic, simply isn't up for the rugged ACC defenses it must stop and move.
In the opener against Auburn, Tech got by on schemes and uncertainty. The success was greeted with cheers for Gailey and line coach Joe D'Alessandris, who seemingly molded the smallish, inexperienced unit into a winner.
Hold the applause now. Gailey and D'Alessandris still deserve some credit for recognizing the line's limitations and devising schemes that could hide its deficiencies. But once the Yellow Jackets' new look got on film, it's been another story for the five up front.
North Carolina, one of the worst defensive teams in the nation over the last three years, stopped the Tech run after the first quarter. The Tar Heels turned the Yellow Jackets into a pass-first team, even in the fourth quarter with Tech leading.
Virginia Tech stopped everything. The Hokies' athletic front seven dominated the line of scrimmage, hurrying Ball every time he dropped back to pass and stuffing the Tech running game. With very good cornerbacks, the Hokies matched them up one-on-one and attacked the Yellow Jackets' line.
It's a strategy sure to be employed from now on, even by defenses that lack the Hokies' overwhelming talent. Being physical and aggressive with the Tech offensive line, which isn't very powerful right now, is worth a try for anyone.
Gailey Chose Unfortunate Words
Gailey, in taking the blame for the Blacksburg Massacre, said the words that surely made Tech athletic director Dave Braine cringe.
"I didn't get this team prepared for this football game," Gailey said in his post-game remarks.
Among the things Braine wanted to see the most when he issued his offseason proclamations about the Yellow Jackets being better was fewer unprepared efforts. Tech's AD wanted two things more than anything else -- a team that consistently produced good efforts, even if they weren't always victorious efforts, and a team that always competed. Memories of the 2002 losses to Georgia and Fresno State remain with him.
Tech, its alumni and general fan base, can handle losing if absolutely necessary. But they don't like being embarrassed, and they really don't like looking unprepared.
Now this was a near-impossible set-up for Gailey and his staff, which had to assemble and install two game plans offensively because of Ball's illness. Ball had viral meningitis, which caused him to miss the Yellow Jackets' victory against Connecticut. The quarterback was hospitalized into the Monday morning before the Virginia Tech game, and his uncertain status made for an unpredictable week.
Then the team headed to Blacksburg, needing a near-flawless effort to pull the upset, and it got nothing near that from the players. Without a fully developed game plan for Ball -- the Jackets didn't have enough protections to handle the Hokies and take chances against press coverage on the outside, and they couldn't install QB runs because of Ball's uncertain health -- Tech had very little chance to play from behind.
So Gailey, playing the good soldier, shouldered the blame and took the heat off his players. But with his choice of words he also put the heat on Braine, who does not want to get rid of Gailey this offseason. The AD will have that option soon enough. Gailey's contract expires at the end of the 2006 campaign. All of his assistants' deals expire after this season.
That's not to say that Braine is looking for reasons to fire Gailey. It's really just the opposite, and the Yellow Jackets' hot start certainly began to vindicate Braine's opinion that Gailey is the right man for the job.
But unprepared teams -- even during trying circumstances -- are certainly a check mark in the wrong column. Much as leadership and character will be tested in the middle portion of the Yellow Jackets' schedule, so, too, will the coaching. It will reflect very poorly on Gailey if at any point Tech again looks so unprepared.