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Massive Offseason Turmoil, Attrition Will Be Hard To Overcome

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  By Larry Williams, Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle
August 25, 2003

ATLANTA — At some football-mad schools, it's conceivable for a coach to be worried about his job going into his second season. Alabama? You'd better believe it. Notre Dame? You bet. Florida? Check back in a few months. There are plenty of other programs that deserve a spot on the same list, but most college football fans wouldn't expect Georgia Tech to be included. Despite the program's rich history, its coaches usually have been given ample time to succeed or fail. Which brings us to Chan Gailey, who has coached 13 games on the Flats and, if you ask some folks, might consider himself lucky to coach 13 more. In the eyes of many Georgia Tech boosters, Gailey has done little to inspire confidence that he will lead the program back to the ACC prominence it enjoyed shortly before his arrival. Most probably know the details by now: the embarrassing showings in the final two games last season, against Georgia and Fresno State; the harried letter from athletic director Dave Braine to big-money boosters, affirming his support for Gailey; the flunking out of 10 Yellow Jackets, two of them key players; and, most recently, Gailey's much-criticized August demotion of first-string quarterback Damarius Bilbo to receiver. Even given all of those problems, it might be considered rash for a coach to be put on the hot seat after just one year in charge. But looking at the Jackets' brutal opening stretch — at Brigham Young, Auburn, at Florida State, Clemson, at Vanderbilt, N.C. State — it becomes evident that Gailey's job (and perhaps Braine's) could be in real danger if his team is in the tank by early October. Predictably, Gailey said he doesn't pay attention to that kind of speculation. “I don't keep up with commentary,” he said. “I'm just doing my best to help us win football games, and I'm excited about the future. I don't know anything about that other part.” In a sport as obsessively followed as college football, perception is important. And even though Gailey chooses to ignore it, the perception is that he doesn't have a particularly firm grip on the direction of the program. The back-to-back debacles to close last year's 7-6 season hurt. Tech appeared to quit in the 51-7 fleecing against Georgia in Athens, and Fresno State didn't seem to miss its five starters who were suspended before the Silicon Valley Classic. The depleted team made the Yellow Jackets look almost completely inept in the first half before winning 30-21. Despite those inexplicable no-shows, and despite Braine's letter shortly thereafter that expressed “disappointment with the way the football season ended,” Tech supporters probably would have found a way to manufacture some enthusiasm for Gailey's second campaign. That was before the May announcement that 10 players, including star tailback Tony Hollings and blossoming defensive end Tony Hargrove, flunked out of school. Neither Hollings nor Hargrove will play for Tech again; Hollings applied for the NFL's supplemental draft and will play in the pros this fall, while Hargrove is working out with a personal trainer in anticipation of next year's draft. Receiver Lekeldrick Bridges, linebacker Sterling Green, offensive lineman Reggie Koon, linebacker Anthony Lawston, defensive tackle Alfred Malone (another starter), linebacker Kingi McNair, defensive tackle Terron Pullen and tailback Michael Sampson also failed to make the grade. There was no shortage of other bad news in the offseason. Texas-bred freshman quarterback Al Pena, a passing whiz who enrolled in January and was expected to compete for playing time immediately, left the program during the spring semester. So did offensive lineman Zeb McHargue, a 2002 signee. Veteran offensive linemen Clay Hartley and Jeremy Phillips, both likely second-stringers, gave up football because of chronic knee problems. Redshirt freshman receiver Eddie Lee Ivery and true freshman defensive tackle LeShawn Newberry were lost for the season with knee injuries. After the academic disaster, the athletic department's director of academic services lost her job. More importantly, however, Gailey seemed to lose what little remaining confidence and support he had left from boosters. Ryan Stewart's opinions aren't necessarily representative of the majority of Georgia Tech fans, but they're important because he used to play for the Yellow Jackets and remains connected to the program. A defensive back for Tech from 1992-95, Stewart played on teams with a combined record of 17-27. Tech was an ACC power when Stewart signed with them, but Bobby Ross soon left the Flats and Bill Lewis took over. The Jackets went 11-22 before George O'Leary began to turn things around in 1995. “Things were going in the right direction when I went there,” Stewart said. “Then Bill Lewis came in and kind of tore them down again.” Stewart is praying that Gailey isn't another Lewis. He refuses to pass judgment on the former, mostly because Gailey exceeded his expectations by winning seven games last season. But he can't seem to get past the embarrassment of the ugly losses and the academic fiasco. “Losing those 10 scholarships is going to cost somebody,” Stewart said. “Maybe not right now, but it's going to cost somebody eventually. If this season is not successful, I see some things changing. We can't afford to let the program go back to the way it was when I was there, when Bill Lewis was there. If Chan doesn't find a way to make things happen this year, I see some problems.” Looking at Georgia Tech's preseason depth chart, it's easy to see the problems Gailey will face when his team is on the field. At quarterback, Gailey could be pinning his future on true freshman Reggie Ball, a 5-11, 192-pounder who has been compared to former Tech great Joe Hamilton. Gailey took a calculated gamble a week into fall camp by elevating Ball and demoting Bilbo, the projected starter exiting the spring and entering the fall. Ball's style might evoke comparisons to Hamilton, but it's important to note that Hamilton was redshirted during his first year on campus. This time last year, Ball was starting his senior year at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga. Also, it's safe to assume that Hamilton's first six opponents were nowhere close to the slate Georgia Tech faces this year. Gailey, who said late in fall drills that the job was still up for grabs among Ball, senior A.J. Suggs and true freshman Patrick Carter, admitted that Ball remains a work in progress. “He's got a ton of confidence in himself, and that confidence shows,” Gailey said. “But inexperience shows, too.” Gailey has some experience at tailback, little of it proven. When Hollings bolted for the pros after flunking out, he left behind a committee of unknowns. Sophomores Ace Eziemefe (282 yards last season) and P.J. Daniels (255), a former walk-on, appeared ahead of little-used senior Jermaine Hatch, Morris Brown transfer Chris Woods and true freshman Rashaun Grant (a prep All-American) in late August. “The magazines all say Georgia Tech has a bunch of unknown running backs,” Daniels said. “Well, we're going to have a little surprise for them. We're going to show them we're ready for the challenge.” There is some good news on offense: The line returns four very reliable starters, including star tackles Nat Dorsey and Kyle Wallace, and the receivers — led by Jonathan Smith and Nate Curry — have some experience. And don't forget Bilbo, Tech's biggest wideout at 6-3 and 225 pounds. “I don't see any reason why (Bilbo) can't be a very good receiver,” Gailey said. “It's going to take some time, but he can probably make the transition quicker than others. Running full-speed and then catching the football isn't something that just happens, but the thought processes are there from his experience as a quarterback.” As for who will be drawing up the plays, expect Gailey to do the majority of it. Former coordinator Bill O'Brien, a holdover from O'Leary's staff, joined his old buddy Ralph Friedgen at Maryland after one season under Gailey. The perception among many in the coaching fraternity was that Gailey and O'Brien didn't get along last season. Gailey swore off play-calling before the season, but some believe he became more meddlesome as the year progressed. O'Brien, the theory goes, preferred a more wide-open style and felt stifled by Gailey's ball-control, conservative influence. “O'Brien had the continuity with those kids over the years,” one ACC assistant said. “Billy had them used to Friedgen's philosophy, and then all of a sudden Chan's the coach. There might have been some conflicts there.” Said another rival assistant: “Last year, it seemed like they were trying to mix and match the previous offense to what Gailey wanted to do. That was probably their biggest struggle.” Any struggles on defense probably will begin up front, where the academic casualties ravaged a line that was young and thin even before the avalanche hit. Malone, who started the previous two seasons at tackle, joined Hargrove on the
exit list. And it appears that star end Greg Gathers, who missed most of last season with a serious kidney ailment, won't be close to full-speed any time soon. That leaves most of the defensive leadership to senior linebackers Keyaron Fox and Daryl Smith, who have combined for 475 career tackles. “You've got to put your players in a position to make plays,” second-year defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said. “And the focal point will still be on Fox and Smith.” Said Fox: “It's fun because we're getting to lead the defense. But at the same time, it's a lot of pressure. If things don't work out, everything points back to you.” Any pressure on Fox and Smith is nothing compared to the heat on Gailey. In July, his team was picked eighth in the ACC. It was the Jackets' lowest predicted finish since 1989. It all had to be unsettling to fans who were preparing for greatness just two years ago. Back then, the Jackets returned their starting quarterback (George Godsey), a star receiver (Kelly Campbell) and a stout defense from a 9-3 team that tied for second in the ACC in 2000. There were even some dreamy forecasts of a trip to the Rose Bowl, and many observers considered Georgia Tech as legitimate a candidate as any to end Florida State's run of nine straight ACC titles. Few people accurately estimated the enormous void that would be left by Friedgen, whose unique system and crafty play-calling have helped make the Terrapins a force again. The Jackets struggled to an 8-5 disappointment that year, with three of the losses coming at home. O'Leary soon left for his dream job at Notre Dame, and everyone knows about the nightmare that took place soon thereafter. Tech then brought in Gailey, a straight-talking coach with NFL experience who was going to turn things around. The program took a sharp turn for the worse instead, and it could be a while before things get better. “We have nothing to lose,” Eziemefe said. “No one is expecting anything out of us.”