April 3, 2007
ATLANTA Georgia Tech opened spring football practice with few holes to fill in its starting lineup, and none of them could be considered gaping.
The offensive tackle spot played by senior Mansfield Wrotto last fall? Two experienced backups are competing for it, while a third will do so in August, after recovering from offseason surgery.
Calvin Johnson's wide receiver slot? Tall and talented freshman Demaryius Thomas already has laid claim to it.
Defensive tackle, perfected by Joe Anoai? Filled by Vance Walker, who has been part of a three-player rotation at the tackle spots for the last two years.
Outside linebacker? Shane Bowen practiced with the starters there regularly last year, and freshman Anthony Barnes will compete as well.
Cornerbacks? Jahi Word-Daniels, Pat Clark and Avery Roberson all started games there in 2006, and freshman Laurence Marius is expected to challenge, too.
With a week left in spring drills, the holes had been plugged as expected everywhere except cornerback. And it will be at least August and maybe later before that situation is resolved, according to Tech coach Chan Gailey.
"We have guys who I believe can make a jump this spring and help us next fall, but they've got to get better," Gailey said. "Right now, we're at the same level we were in the fall. To me, we have to keep getting better."
The corner situation understandably is frustrating for Gailey and his staff, because it has lingered for a year now. Jamal Lewis went into last spring as the expected starter, but then safety Joe Gaston suffered a serious knee injury early in spring drills.
Gailey and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta moved Lewis to safety and let Word-Daniels, Roberson and Clark (who switched from wide receiver at the start of spring) compete for the corner spot opposite senior Kenny Scott.
None of the trio stood out last spring or in the preseason, though. Tenuta started Clark there in the opener against Notre Dame and the following two games. Clark struggled with his tackling, though, and Word-Daniels took his place for the ACC opener versus Virginia.
Tenuta benched Word-Daniels in favor of Roberson late in the season, with Roberson starting the final three regular-season games and the ACC championship loss to Wake Forest. Word-Daniels and Roberson then started the Gator Bowl, after Scott was declared academically ineligible.
Complicating the situation this spring is an injury to safety Djay Jones that required surgery and has sidelined him for all of the drills. With Jones out, Roberson is taking most of the practice snaps at safety. Plus, Roberson has academic issues to resolve this semester and over the summer, Gailey said.
"We're making sure we get a lot of different people reps at a lot of different places, because we don't know how that's going to turn out right now," Gailey said. "He's practicing now, but it's something that needs to be addressed."
Gailey acknowledged the possibility that the corner positions could be in flux during the regular season again this fall.
"You'd rather not" go through it again, Gailey said. "You'd rather have the same guys play all the time and it be easy and just right. You're trying to make sure you get the best people in the best position to do the best job. You can't just go out there and say, OK, this is it, no matter what.' Sometimes you have to adjust on the move."
The Jackets will have to make significant adjustments if the situation remains unsettled. Tenuta's defensive philosophy revolves around pressure at the line of scrimmage and relentless blitzing. That often requires tight man-to-man coverage and seamless communication from the cornerbacks.
If the corners don't improve, Tech's defense will be susceptible to long passing plays and likely forced to utilize more zone coverage.
EARLY ARRIVALS IMPRESS VETERANS
Derrick Morgan and Steven Threet, the two heralded members of this year's recruiting class who graduated from high school early to enroll this semester, already have impressed teammates with their talent and ability to learn quickly.
Morgan, a 6-4, 265-pound defensive end, is taking plenty of snaps with Tech's starters because of minor injuries to veterans Adamm Oliver and Michael Johnson.
"He's different than your usual freshman," Oliver said of Morgan. "It usually takes them longer to catch up (on the field and in the weight room). Of course, like any other freshman, he's got stuff to work on. But for the most part, I'm pretty impressed."
Teammate Darrell Robertson said he expects Morgan to be game-ready come September. That would give Tech four starting-quality ends. Oliver, Johnson and Robertson rotated at the two spots last year and combined for 13.5 sacks.
The depth of talent at the position means there is less pressure on Morgan, one of the prizes of Tech's star-studded recruiting class. The coach can see where Robertson is coming from on Morgan's talent, though.
"He can move," Gailey said. "There are a lot of guys who are big and strong, but he can move."
Threet, meanwhile, is competing for the backup quarterback job this spring. Junior Taylor Bennett essentially won the starting role with his 325-yard passing performance in the Gator Bowl. That suits Threet fine.
"I came in here with the impression that I was going to go through spring practice, learn the offense early, get used to going to school, workouts and practices, and that's what I'm doing," Threet said. "I came in for those reasons and those reasons alone."
Threet steadily is picking up new offensive coordinator John Bond's scheme. He is sharing the backup snaps with freshman Byron Ingram, who redshirted last year, and Auburn transfer Calvin Booker.
HOOPS: FINAL FOUR-STYLE DREAMS
With the Final Four in Atlanta, Georgia Tech's basketball team remained a topic of conversation even after the Yellow Jackets lost to UNLV in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Fans specifically focused on the Jackets' prospects of reaching college basketball's final weekend next year.
Tech likely will have the talent. Neither of its freshman phenoms, point guard Javaris Crittenton or swingman Thaddeus Young, has officially announced a decision to return next season, but they have given their teammates that impression. April 29 is the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft.
The Yellow Jackets would be among the ACC favorites, and by extension national title contenders, should Crittenton and Young return. Coach Paul Hewitt said before the NCAA Tournament that he believed his team could make a deep run for one reason: talent.
"Make no mistake about it, it takes talent to win in this tournament, and this is a very talented group of players," Hewitt said. "With that said, we're still inconsistent defensively with our commitment and our attention to detail."
The Yellow Jackets improved in those areas throughout the 2006-07 season, though, and now they have all summer to focus on it.
Tech loses only one regular contributor, senior guard Mario West, and will add three freshmen. The Jackets also should get talented wing guard Lewis Clinch back from an academic suspension. Transfer Matt Causey, a rising senior point guard who started his career at Georgetown and then played two years at North Georgia, will be eligible next season as well.