By Adam Van Brimmer
Savannah (Ga.) Morning News
April 25, 2005 ATLANTA Spring practice at Georgia Tech matched swagger versus stagger. The Yellow Jackets' defense, with nine starters returning from one of the nation's stingiest units in 2004, did much of the swaggering. The offense and head coach Chan Gailey did all of the staggering, as the Jackets broke in a new line and Gailey suffered and then recovered from a heart attack. Even with such a surreal spring, the Jackets will strut into September. Georgia Tech is loaded with talent and poised for a break-out season this fall. While many of its conference peers integrate new players at key positions, Tech returns its leading rusher, receiver and passer on offense and three all-conference players from a defense that ranked 12th nationally in both yards and points allowed. Those factors should raise the expectation levels from near and far, although Gailey said it will not change his team's approach. "We'll be different because there have been no expectations prior to this outside of the Georgia Tech family," Gailey said. "We've had expectations of ourselves, but there haven't been any from the outside. It will be a little bit different, but we'll talk about approaching everything exactly the same." Much of the personnel will remain constant as well, starting with the quarterback. Rising junior Reggie Ball beat out freshmen Taylor Bennett and Kyle Manley in a much-anticipated open competition. Ball, who started 25 games over the last two years but has yet to display a veteran's maturity, made what teammates and coaches called "big strides" in the spring. Ball averaged 205 yards passing in three spring scrimmages and completed 53 percent of his passes. "Right now, he has nothing to lose," safety Chris Reis said. "Everybody expects him to do badly, so he just goes out there and plays. He's doing a great job." Ball failed to cut back on his interceptions, though. He threw 29 in his first two seasons as Tech's starter, then threw four more in the spring. But his misfires in March and April were different than those of the previous two falls, when he routinely would force passes into coverage or throw blindly on the run. He actually looked comfortable running the offense this spring. "Now I see him throwing to the right people," Gailey said. "Sometimes he gets the ball a little bit behind him, but it's the right decision, the right place, the right guy. I can live with doing what's right and they make an interception." Ball's teammates see other improvements as well. He worked closely with his young and inexperienced line this spring, showing leadership he hadn't displayed before. "He's much more of a leader right now," guard Matt Rhodes said. "He's grabbing it by the horns and running with it. He's kind of got that presence in there, where he's calm and he just knows he's going to get the job done." Ball still needs to prove he can play consistently in the fall, Gailey said. "He's taken a step in maturing in the quarterback position and that means leadership, but to be a great leader you have to play well," Gailey said. "You can't be a great leader and not be a good player. I think he's got a chance to come out and have a big year this year. More solid. Maybe not be an all-conference quarterback though he might be but help us win football games." Or at least not lose them. Ball is surrounded by stars and can be successful by managing the offense rather than dominating it. Tailback P.J. Daniels is healthy and joined in the backfield by exciting Oklahoma transfer Tashard Choice, while phenom Calvin Johnson returns at wide receiver. After winning a special-circumstances appeal to avoid the NCAA's typical one-year sit-out penalty for transfers, Choice (whose family lives in the Atlanta area) quickly emerged as a quality backup at tailback. Johnson dominated the spring. The 2004 ACC rookie of the year surpassed 100 yards receiving in three scrimmages, abusing the Yellow Jackets' experienced and talented secondary. He showed improvement in his route running and a better understanding of the offense than he did a year ago, when he became only the 11th true freshman in league history to earn first-team all-conference honors. "He could go in the top 10 right now in the NFL draft. He's that good," Reis said. "You have to play him perfect to a T, and it still has to be a pretty badly thrown ball to get it." Johnson could see plenty of those if the line doesn't give Ball time to throw. The Jackets have lost three starters up front for the second straight year. Just as in 2004, Gailey and his staff shuffled the blockers around in the spring.
While Rhodes returned to his left guard spot, fellow returning starter Brad Honeycutt moved from right guard to right tackle. Honeycutt started 24 games at guard the last two seasons. The rest of the linemen made bigger adjustments in the spring. Mansfield Wrotto moved from defensive tackle to Honeycutt's old guard spot, while Nate McManus, a guard for all but one game last fall, started at center. Freshman left tackle Andrew Gardner will be charged with protecting Ball's blind side. "We're still trying to find that personality, something that defines who we are as an offensive line," Rhodes said. "Right now, we need to get tougher. We need more strength, just to be tougher." Toughness is not a question for Tech's defensive players. They proved their mettle last fall, holding four of 12 opponents to 10 points or fewer, and they entered the spring with an obvious swagger. "Any time you bring back that many starters on one side of the field, you're going to have a lot of confidence," middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson said. "We feel like it's our time to do something special. We're not going to have any excuse not to." Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta shuffled some personnel around this spring to fill the Jackets' few holes. He moved all-conference linebacker Reis to safety to replace James Butler, the only starter who exhausted his eligibility last fall. Philip Wheeler, a sophomore who has wowed teammates with his athleticism and skills, made Reis' move possible. Reis led Tech in sacks last fall, but Wheeler may be an even better pass rusher. He spent much of the spring hassling quarterbacks in the backfield. The Yellow Jackets suffered one major injury in the spring, and it came at a position where they could least afford it. Defensive tackle Darryl Richard, who started three games last fall as a true freshman, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a scrimmage. He's out for the season, barring what Gailey classified as a "major miracle" in rehab. With Wrotto moving to the offensive line, that left the Jackets short at tackle. One possible solution is to move standout end Travis Parker back to tackle, where he starred in 2003, and start Adamm Oliver at end. Oliver made 27 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and three sacks, in a reserve role last fall. "Losing Richard, that really tore us apart," Reis said. "People have to step up behind him and play and perform. We always bounce back, and we always come back big, and that's what we're going to do." In other words, it will take a lot more than one injury for the 2005 Georgia Tech football team to lose its swagger. Spring 2005 Overview
The PooP In the world of fourth-year coach Chan Gailey, the 2005 season represents the mother of all forks in the road. Tech AD Dave Braine essentially has stated that he expects the team to elevate itself from the last three solid but unspectacular seasons (7-6, 7-6, 7-5), and Gailey's long-term future in Atlanta (as well as an all-important contract extension) likely hangs in the balance. The Yellow Jackets have a veteran QB (Reggie Ball), an accomplished tailback (P.J. Daniels), an elite playmaker (Calvin Johnson), a reliable kicking game and a superb defense. If the Jackets can't break through this time, when will they?
Probable 2005 Starters
+ injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong When you give one of the best defensive coordinators (Jon Tenuta) in the nation nine returning starters, a few promising newcomers, plenty of athleticism and lots of experience, great things are likely to happen. The talk among the players in April was that the Jackets should have one of the best defenses if not the best in all of college football. Rock-solid returning starters: RB P.J. Daniels, WR Calvin Johnson, RT Brad Honeycutt, PK Travis Bell, DE Eric Henderson, DT/DE Travis Parker, LB Gerris Wilkinson, SS Chris Reis, CB Reuben Houston. Also looking good: RB Tashard Choice, CB Dennis Davis, WR James Johnson, TE Mike Matthews, DE Adamm Oliver, DE Darrell Robertson, LB Philip Wheeler.
Cause For Concern? At the conclusion of spring drills, Tech's starting offensive line was projected (from left to right) as a redshirt freshman (Gardner), a sophomore (Rhodes), an injured player (Tuminello), a defensive transplant (Wrotto) and a position switch (Honeycutt), and quality depth was impossible to find. Good chemistry and cohesion up front can make a lot of problems go away, but that doesn't sound anything like a foundation for a break-out season. Also: inconsistent QB play, defensive tackle, depth almost everywhere, new deep snapper.
On The Sidelines The following players missed all or most of spring drills: DT David Brown (mono), DE Travis Parker (shoulder), OC Kevin Tuminello (ankle). Also, DT Darryl Richard suffered a knee injury in April that likely will cause him to miss the 2005 season.
Spring Cleaning The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: DT Omar Billy (chose to graduate), OL Brad Brezina (medical/spine), QB/WR Patrick Carter (transfer/South Florida), LB Nick Moore (transfer/Baylor), LB Kyle Pupello (academics).