April 4, 2006
ATLANTA -- The biggest news of the early going at Georgia Tech's spring football practice may have been what didn't happen, rather than what did happen.
No spread-option offense. No radical sets or formations. No closed practice sessions. Just a team "trying to get better," as coach Chan Gailey described it.
Wild rumors about even wilder philosophical and scheme changes had been rampant on message boards over the past few months, ever since one of the internet recruiting websites published unattributed reports of a major offensive overhaul for the Yellow Jackets.
"We're going to use the same formations, the same personnel groupings," Gailey said. "We'll have some new wrinkles here and there, but nothing major."
If anything, this spring is a chance for Tech to hone its ball-control offense.
The line has a season of experience together, with left tackle Andrew Gardner, left guard Matt Rhodes, center Kevin Tuminello and right guard Nate McManus all returning as starters.
Quarterback Reggie Ball is going into his fourth year as the starter. His backup, Taylor Bennett, is a third-year player. Tailback Tashard Choice, who succeeds P.J. Daniels as the starter, learned the scheme last spring and fall. His backup, Rashaun Grant, is a fourth-year player.
Wide receiver is probably Tech's offensive focal area this spring. All-American Calvin Johnson is established at one position, but the other spots are open.
James Johnson is slated to replace Damarius Bilbo, who graduated in December, as the starter on the side opposite Calvin Johnson. James Johnson will have plenty of competition. Xavier McGuire and Chris Dunlap, both seniors, will challenge for a spot, as will a handful of redshirt freshmen.
Greg Smith had a strong debut last fall and could vault up the depth chart with similar performances this spring. He has good size at 6-3 and 195 pounds and the second-best hands on the team, behind Calvin Johnson.
"We have got to see how far and how fast these young receivers can go," Gailey said, "and how the two older guys are going to fit in."
Bigger concerns for Georgia Tech lie in football's other two facets: defense and special teams.
Graduation gutted Tech's secondary, claiming three of the four starters. Promising underclassmen will fill two of the spots: cornerback Jamal Lewis and free safety Djay Jones.
The strong safety position, played by Chris Reis last season and Dawan Landry two years ago (before he moved to free safety), is a gaping hole for the Yellow Jackets. Joe Gaston, a senior with 30 career tackles (most on special teams), is first on the depth chart.
Several others will audition at the spot as well. Tony Clark, a redshirt freshman, and Avery Roberson, a fourth-year player, are the most talented of the group, although both may be in the mix at cornerback as well.
Strong safety is a vital position in defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's scheme. Reis and Landry were good at blitzing and lending run support during their tenures at the position. Whoever succeeds them must have similar skills.
The other big defensive shoes to fill are at middle linebacker. Gerris Wilkinson exhausted his eligibility last fall. His heir apparent, outside linebacker KaMichael Hall, is recovering from a minor injury and is not participating in contact drills this spring.
Gailey said the Jackets intend to try several players at the spot this spring. Philip Wheeler, who starred as a first-year starter at outside linebacker last fall, played the middle in Tech's early practices. That was a surprise.
Wheeler has enough size to play in the middle -- 6-2, 225 pounds -- but he struggled to grasp the intricacies of Tenuta's scheme early in his career. He took a redshirt year two seasons ago to gain more experience, and he mastered outside linebacker. He made 11.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and four interceptions last fall playing the role. Moving the junior into a new position this spring constitutes a gamble.
"He's a load there, I can tell you that," Gailey said of Wheeler. "We're going to try a lot of different people there. Let's not give it to him just yet."
With Wheeler playing plenty of snaps in the middle and Hall sidelined, Gary Guyton and Taalib Tucker will benefit from practice time at the two outside positions. Guyton, a junior and the top reserve linebacker last fall, is likely to take one of the starting spots. Tucker, a sophomore who played mostly on special teams in 2005, is the biggest linebacker on the roster at 238 pounds. He will see significant playing time this fall as the top backup.
MAJOR OVERHAUL ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Tech's kicking and return teams are undergoing an overhaul this spring.
David Wilson, who held the title of special teams coach for the past four years but played a much larger role in his job as the Yellow Jackets' recruiting coordinator, resigned in the offseason.
Gailey hired Charles Kelly away from Nicholls State to replace Wilson and has charged him with improving the kicking game. Coverage teams will be the main focal point.
Opponents averaged nearly 24 yards per kickoff return in 2005, putting Tech's defense at a disadvantage in terms of field position. The poor punt coverage was just as glaring; opponents averaged nine yards per return, despite punter Ben Arndt's penchant for forcing fair catches. Nearly a quarter of Ardnt's punts were fair-caught last fall, and 29 of his 87 boots pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line.
"We're going to spend some time in special teams this spring," Gailey said. "A lot of time."
Kelly also will be grooming new specialists. Durant Brooks is the new punter, and his booming kicks wowed fans during the early practices. Brooks also will hold on placements. The Jackets have a new deep snapper, too, in Bret White.
Top punt returner Pat Clark likely will give up that role this season. Gailey moved Clark from wide receiver to cornerback this spring, and the coach wants Clark to focus on his new position.
Clark returned 30 of the opponents' 35 punts last fall. Grant, James Johnson, Andrew Smith and Jake Blackwood are returning punts this spring.
A good spring will be important to the lone special teams returnee, placekicker Travis Bell. He followed up a record-setting freshman season in 2004 with a dismal 2005. He made just 11 of 21 field goals last fall, after making 15 of 17 -- including 15 in a row -- two years ago.
Re-establishing Bell's confidence and "getting him back on track" are vital to the team's prospects for 2006, Gailey said.