By Adam Van Brimmer
Savannah (Ga.) Morning News
April 26, 2004 SPRING 2004 OVERVIEW ATLANTA Reggie Ball leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath and spoke from a dangerous place his heart. "We're not satisfied with this mediocre junk we went through," Georgia Tech's quarterback said, just days before his team opened spring practice on March 19. Then he smiled, no doubt remembering the bold prediction he made last September, following a narrow loss at Florida State. Then a brash 18-year-old and the first true freshman to play quarterback in Georgia Tech's 111-year football history, Ball said the Yellow Jackets wouldn't lose again during the 2003 season. One week later, Clemson humbled him and the Jackets with a
39-3 defeat. "Actually, I shouldn't say we were mediocre," an older and wiser Ball interjected before his "mediocre junk" statement settled in, "but we were better than 7-6." So began spring practice for the Yellow Jackets, a team that surprised everyone except themselves with that 7-6 record last fall. Tech again is unlikely to be a popular preseason pick this fall, with Miami and Virginia Tech arriving to form an even tougher, 11-team ACC, but that's familiar territory for the Jackets these days. Picked to finish next-to-last in the conference before the 2003 season, Tech rallied behind a true freshman at quarterback, a former walk-on at tailback and an overachieving defense. The season, capped by a 52-10 victory over Tulsa in the Humanitarian Bowl, raised expectations for Chan Gailey's program. Georgia Tech's football image had taken more hits than a tackling dummy going back to the end of the 2001 season, when then-coach George O'Leary left the school to take his dream job at Notre Dame. Just days after hiring O'Leary, the Fighting Irish discovered the coach had lied on his rÈsumÈ and fired him. The scandal made national headlines and bruised Tech's credibility. That led to the hiring of Gailey, an accomplished coach known in football circles for, among other things, his integrity. Gailey's first season in Atlanta was a rocky one. Tech lost the nation's leading rusher, Tony Hollings, to a knee injury midway through the season, plus All-American defensive end Greg Gathers to a kidney illness. Then last spring, 10 players failed out of school, starting defensive end Tony Hargrove among them. Georgia Tech had become a punch line. The 2003 season changed that perception. Ball took over as quarterback early in preseason practice and went on to earn ACC freshman of the year honors. Bruising tailback P.J. Daniels, a former walk-on, pounded the rest of the league to rush for an ACC-best 1,447 yards. And Tech's defense, with three new starters (including a converted linebacker at end) on the line, led the conference and ranked 12th nationally against the run. Gailey boosted hopes even more this winter by putting together one of the nation's most surprising recruiting classes. Tech signed Calvin Johnson, considered a can't-miss wide receiver by most analysts, and a trio of defensive linemen ranked among the top 30 in the country. The class as a whole didn't crack the top five in the conference or even the top 50 overall, but it drew some desirable headlines for its star quality. Even Gailey, a cautious coach, approached this spring optimistically. "Now we're in a building mode," Gailey said. "We can keep building, keep building, keep building. Some days you're fighting to stay even, and some days you're building. And we're more in the building days now than the stay-even days." Staying even wasn't easy for the Yellow Jackets this spring. While Ball looked sharper with each practice and each scrimmage, a slimmed-down Daniels showed he could run outside as well as between the tackles, and Nate Curry established himself as the team's new go-to wide receiver, the coaching staff shuffled and reshuffled personnel at other positions. The heaviest tinkering occurred on the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary. None of those shortcomings came as a surprise, but spring drills concluded with some lingering concerns. Tech lost two of the league's best blockers in the offseason. Center Hugh Reilly exhausted his eligibility last fall, and left tackle Nat Dorsey declared for the NFL draft a year early. Tech's coaches declined to nominate Dorsey for All-ACC consideration after his junior season, and many pre-draft reports proved too optimistic when Dorsey fell to the fourth round. Gailey moved players around to fill the holes at the start of spring practice. Andy Tidwell-Neal slid from guard to center. Leon Robinson, who saw limited action in 2003 because of a wrist injury, inherited the guard position. Senior Kenton Johnson, who transferred to Tech last summer from nearby Morris Brown, stepped in at Dorsey's old spot. But Robinson's chronic wrist problems returned, and Johnson struggled in a starting role. Midway through practice, Gailey moved Tidwell-Neal back to guard and promoted backup center Kevin Tuminello to starter. The coach also swapped Johnson with right tackle Kyle Wallace, putting the more experienced Wallace in position to protect Ball's blind side. Johnson finished the spring as the second-string right tackle behind Salih Besirevic, whose play Gailey classified as "the most surprising of the spring." "This is what spring is for," Tidwell-Neal said. "We're seeing what everybody's skills are and trying to get the best five (linemen) on the field." The Yellow Jackets need only the best three at linebacker, but the spring was even more tumultuous there than on the line. All three starters on the 2003 team exhausted their eligibility, and Tech opened the spring with Gerris Wilkinson at strong-side linebacker, Nick Moore in the middle and KaMichael Hall on the weak side. Wilkinson, who moved from linebacker to end last summer when Hargrove and the rest failed out of school, jumped back to linebacker this spring and wowed the coaches with his speed and mobility. But Moore struggled in the middle, and that led to another major mid-spring change. Wilkinson replaced Moore in the middle, and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta moved strong safety and playmaker Chris Reis to strong-side linebacker. "We're not just taking a look here; it's an honest effort to try to see if that is the best combination," Gailey said. "We didn't do it initially. We waited to see and then made some moves." One place Gailey hopes he won't have to make any moves is at cornerback, where veterans Reuben Houston and Dennis Davis missed the spring because of injuries. Sophomore Kenny Scott has cemented himself as a starter on one side, but the other corners performed so poorly that Tenuta ended up rotating safeties James Butler and Nathan Burton at the other spot. Despite all the shifting, Gailey said he came away from the spring with positive feelings about his team. But he was quick to hint that for the Yellow Jackets to improve on last year's "mediocre junk," they'll need some help from their most recent recruiting class. "We accomplished some things this spring. We found a couple of guys who came on," Gailey said. "And we identified our holes and saw where our freshmen will fit in."
Georgia Tech: Offensive Line, Linebackers Complicated Gailey's Building Mode
By Adam Van Brimmer