September 2, 2002 ATLANTA - There's a new attitude at Georgia Tech, and it's refreshing. After a season of late-game collapses and fading confidence, the Yellow Jackets seem to have found a new spirit.
Unburdened by high preseason expectations or the heavy-handed management style of George O'Leary, Tech opened the 2002 season with a convincing 45-3 shellacking of Vanderbilt at a sold-out Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Earlier in the week, senior wide receiver Kerry Watkins acknowledged that several players on last year's 8-5 squad just wanted the season to be over. Losses in the last seconds to Clemson, Maryland and Virginia brought a season that started with such high hopes - and a No. 10 national ranking - crashing down.
This squad can fly under the radar. The players allowed that without those expectations and the harsh glare they bring, this team has been able to come together on its own terms, in its own style.
That new style has been completely molded by new coach Chan Gailey, the soft-spoken Georgia native. He has brought an easy-going manner to the program, that same aw-shucks personality he flashes to alumni groups. The players have responded to the coach's watchful eye and held tongue. He'll still lash out occasionally, as he did after a lackluster practice recently. But he's much more subtle than his predecessor.
Against Vanderbilt, the differences between Gailey and O'Leary were anything but subtle. There was no ranting, no screaming, none of the sideline antics that made good television highlights and photographs. Gailey instead stood off by himself, sometimes as many as 20 yards away from his team. He'd study a playchart, talk with defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta on the headset, listen to offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's play calls.
When wide receiver Will Glover's holding penalty negated a 48-yard first-quarter touchdown run by tailback Tony Hollings, Gailey simply tapped him on the helmet and told him not to worry about it. By that point, Gailey had something figured out: Tech was better and faster than the Commodores.
Gailey said he was trying to get a different perspective with his distant stance on the sideline. With O'Brien lined up even with the line of scrimmage, Gailey tried to soak in the intangibles of the game - attitude, game speed, who was controlling the line of scrimmage.
After spending 16 of the last 17 seasons in the NFL - and all but two of those as an assistant - Gailey isn't used to being on the field. He said as much earlier in the week and repeated that after the Vanderbilt game.
Suggs, Hollings Announce Arrivals
Even if he claims to be a bit uncomfortable with his new viewing perch, Gailey was surely comfortable with his team's domination of the Commodores. The question marks surrounding the season opener almost overshadowed the sense of newness that pervaded over the program: a renovated Bobby Dodd Stadium, a new coaching staff, new starters in the offensive backfield.
Sure, they all brought great promise. But they also brought great peril. It was too easy to play the what-if game, as in what if the new starters couldn't replace the departed ones? You know what they say about the bird in hand. Injuries surely didn't help the Tech cause. Tailback Sidney Ford, wide receiver Jonathan Smith and defensive tackle Gary Johnson missed the Vanderbilt game.
Nevertheless, it took about one quarter for many of those questions to be answered.
Hollings, a converted safety, may be just fine as a replacement for Joe Burns. Hollings became the first Tech runner to rush for more than 100 yards in his debut. Jermaine Hatch added 66 yards in mop-up duty. Senior wide receivers Glover and Watkins look solid as replacements for Kelly Campbell, now with the Minnesota Vikings.
A.J. Suggs, the Tennessee transfer, ended any discussion of a quarterback controversy. Playing in front of friends and family, the Powder Springs, Ga., native showed that the offense is in good hands. He pulled away from redshirt freshman Damarius Bilbo during fall practice, and in the opener he showed the capacity crowd of 43,719 why.
Suggs executed the Tech offense with exacting efficiency. O'Brien showed more formations and plays than many expected, beginning the game with four wide receivers. Tech showed a couple of options and an end around. Suggs orchestrated the whole thing, despite nagging penalties. Tech committed 11 for 75 yards, including three false starts from standout sophomore left tackle Nat Dorsey, and the errors slowed the Yellow Jackets in the first quarter.
Once the Jackets got their act together, they were unstoppable, scoring on six consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters. Suggs got them on the board with a delicate fade to Glover. He proved he could throw a strike when he drilled Watkins for a 37-yard touchdown. He made the tough passes and the easy ones, and he showed why the staff and players have so much faith in him.
Talented Bilbo Still Under Wraps
Bilbo said after the game that he was happy to get in against Vanderbilt's first team. In his only playing time of the first half, he led Tech's second-team offense on a short drive that produced a field goal in the second quarter.
After Hollings scored on the first play of the second half, the game was Bilbo's. And he showed why he can be such a special weapon, buying time with his legs and even scoring on a five-yard draw. He also launched a beautiful spiral down the right sideline to true freshman LeKeldrick Bridges. The receiver couldn't grab it, but it provided an example of Bilbo's amazing skills.
Gailey and O'Brien didn't tip their hand as to how they might use Bilbo in special situations. Remember that Gailey was the assistant coach who brought Slash to life in Pittsburgh with Kordell Stewart. While there was no indication against Vanderbilt that Bilbo will be lining up at wide receiver, a la Stewart, there is no doubt that Tech has a package - likely for short-yardage and goal-line situations - that involves Bilbo running the option or sprinting out with the option to run or pass.
Tech struggled in the red zone last year but had no problems in its opener this season, so Bilbo wasn't used in that capacity. Even if the opportunity had arisen, the Yellow Jackets probably were not going to give future foes a look-see during a blowout.
One other development that was impossible to ignore against Vanderbilt was Tech's reliance on running left behind the 330-pound Dorsey and 315-pound guard Leon Robinson. The road graders plowed the way for Hollings, often giving the tailback five or six yards of open-field running before he met his first defender.
The insistence on running left paid dividends when Tech went right, as it did on three consecutive carries in the second quarter. No doubt opponents will try to find a way to match up better against the massive left side, but those worries are for other days.
The vibe was of pure joy on opening day in Atlanta. The only thing that would have made it better was a shutout.
If it's hard to get too excited about a victory against Vanderbilt, consider the plight of ACC rivals Wake Forest (Northern Illinois) and North Carolina (Miami-Ohio). Taken in that context, Tech took care of business. With non-conference games against surprising Connecticut (which gave Boston College a scare) and BYU (which whipped Syracuse) looking more daunting than expected, taking care of business is important.
Doing it with a smile helps, too.