May 2, 2006
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech opened spring football practice a month ago with little flair. With no quarterback controversy, no coaching or scheme changes and really no position battles because of offseason injuries, the drills lacked intriguing storylines.
But the spring still offered hints of what to expect this fall, which should be the most anticipated season since Joe Hamilton's senior year in 1999 because of the talent and experience on the offensive side of the ball.
Among the clues the spring revealed was a change in the offensive play-calling. Patrick Nix, Tech's top offensive assistant, will call the plays this fall, the first time since 2002 that coach Chan Gailey has surrendered the play-calling duties.
Nix presumably will take more risks than his boss did. Nix describes his philosophy as one of "controlled attack." The Yellow Jackets won't line up in the fun-n-gun or spread option this fall, but expect Nix to hedge away from Gailey's conservative style.
Nix has called the plays at three other stops during his career, most notably while the head coach at Division II Henderson State for two years. Those teams set 18 school records, four Gulf South Conference marks and three Division II records.
"I've been around a lot of coaches who understand you can't have turnovers, you have to control the ball, and you can't give the game away," Nix said. "That's the thing I've learned in this game is make the other team beat you, don't beat yourself. There are a lot of very good risks. You can score points and move the football, but at the same time don't get your team beat."
Gailey vowed to remove himself almost completely from the offensive decision-making. He won't sit in on many offensive meetings during the week. The head coach said he will focus instead on the "big thought processes" and "special situations."
"If it's best for the team right now to go that direction, I have to be smart enough to stay out of it and let him run it," Gailey said. "Having been in that position, I'm not going to sit there and second-guess or try and take over and be involved. When I did it, it was either mine or it wasn't mine. He's going to run it."
The Yellow Jackets' running game, both on offense and defense, will continue to be a strength despite the losses of big stars on both sides.
Tailbacks Tashard Choice, Rashaun Grant and Jamaal Evans showed they can carry on for P.J. Daniels. Daniels rushed for more than 3,000 yards in his three years as a starter, including an ACC-leading 1,447 in 2003. He exhausted his eligibility last fall.
Choice is Daniels' successor. He ran for 513 yards last fall. Grant, a junior who rushed for 120 yards in a game against NC State two years ago, will back up Choice. Evans is a true freshman who graduated from high school early to participate in spring practice. He rushed for 199 yards in three spring scrimmages and is the frontrunner to be the third-stringer.
All three backs are smaller and shiftier than Daniels, which could signal a move away from between-the-tackles running. A more varied running attack would fit the rest of Tech's personnel. Four starting linemen return, and all proved more adept at scheme blocking last fall than lining up and knocking the man across from them off the ball.
The quarterback is fourth-year starter Reggie Ball, who is as dangerous as a runner as a passer. He ran some option last year, and a more open running game should make him more effective.
Ball didn't get a chance to show it this spring. He strained a muscle in his throwing arm on the second day of practice and missed more than two weeks. He returned for the final three practices and the last scrimmage but split snaps with backup Taylor Bennett, who had a rough spring in Ball's absence until he completed 19 of 25 passes in the final scrimmage.
Tech's defense again should have a chance to finish among the top 20 in the country against the run. Eric Henderson, the three-time All-ACC defensive end, graduated, as did middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson. But the Yellow Jackets' depth on the line and the return of two starting linebackers should compensate for the losses.
Darrell Robertson takes over at Henderson's spot opposite returning starter Adamm Oliver. Tech has a third game-ready end in Michael Johnson. Four experienced players return at tackle, led by senior Joe Anoai. Darryl Richard returned from a torn knee ligament this spring and excelled at the other tackle spot.
The defensive line has the ability to control the line of scrimmage. The Jackets are so deep there that Mansfield Wrotto, a three-year starter at defensive tackle, moved to the offensive line this spring.
KaMichael Hall and Philip Wheeler return at linebacker. Wheeler likely will move inside to replace Wilkinson. Gary Guyton, a top backup last season, takes Wheeler's old spot.
DEFENSE WON'T CHANGE APPROACH
Elsewhere, a thin secondary will put pressure on the rest of the team in several ways.
Four veteran defensive backs exhausted their eligibility last fall, including two safeties who started 61 games between them. The Jackets lost another safety this spring when senior Joe Gaston suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Jon Tenuta, Tech's defensive coordinator, shuffled his personnel to compensate. He moved Jamal Lewis, a projected starter at cornerback, to strong safety. Lewis' backup at corner, Avery Roberson, spent part of the spring at safety as well when free safety Djay Jones got hurt.
Roberson likely will practice at both safety and cornerback this fall, competing with sophomores Jahi Word-Daniels (two career tackles) and Tony Clark (one career tackle) and converted wide receiver Pat Clark for the other starting corner spot. Heralded recruit Laurence Marius also could challenge for playing time.
Gailey said who plays where will be decided in the first two weeks of preseason practice.
"The interesting part will be how quickly can the freshmen coming in get themselves involved in the schemes," Gailey said. "There's a lot of scenarios that are up in the air for us in the secondary."
Of course, that complicates things elsewhere. The defensive line and linebackers will have to get a strong pass rush. Just don't anticipate a dumbing-down of Tenuta's aggressive blitzing schemes.
"We've got to have these guys step up and play the defense," Gailey said. "We're not going to change anything."
The pressure also falls on the offense to score more points. Tech averaged 18 points per game last season -- 103rd out of 117 Division I-A teams -- and failed to average more than 22 points per game with Gailey calling the plays.
The Yellow Jackets' scoring woes are partly by design. Gailey called plays conservatively the last three years because of a strong defense and a quarterback prone to turnovers. The offense didn't have to score a ton of points for the Jackets to win. For example, the defense held eight of 11 opponents to 17 points or fewer last year.
The patchwork secondary could change all of that. Bennett said it's time the offense paid the defense back for the last few years. He said they will play for points, not field position. Opponents started 29 drives inside their own 20-yard line after Tech punts in 2005.
"That's the whole goal of the offense is to score points," Bennett said. "We're going to find ways to do it. We're going to get the right people the ball and let them make plays. And we'll score points by doing that."