September 30, 2002 ATLANTA — Long-time Georgia Tech football observers knew it wasn’t just Tony Hollings. They knew the offensive line deserved much of the credit all along. The line will get plenty of kudos now, after true freshman running back Ajenavi “Ace” Eziemefe topped the 100-yard barrier against a decent ACC opponent in his first full game at the college level. Eziemefe, making his first start for the injured Hollings, the nation’s leading rusher, carried 32 times for 136 yards and a touchdown in Tech’s 21-13 victory against North Carolina. The Jackets dominated the line of scrimmage.
Despite lacking Hollings’ explosiveness, Eziemefe picked his holes well behind that powerful line and kept moving forward against the Tar Heels. A 225-pound fullback before a series of injuries depleted Tech’s tailback position, he lost yards on just one carry.
“(The offensive line) did an excellent job. They controlled the line of scrimmage,” Tech coach Chan Gailey said. “A couple of those runs, nobody touched (Eziemefe) for 15 yards.”
As usual, Tech did most of its damage behind the left side, where 6-6, 315-pound tackle Nat Dorsey and 6-4, 310-pound guard Leon Robinson absolutely hammered a rebuilding UNC front. Combined with center Hugh Reilly, the glue of the line, the left side opened running lanes for Eziemefe and backup quarterback Damarius Bilbo, who played two series.
“You can’t ask for a better line,” Eziemefe said. “I got behind them and ran the ball hard.”
Hard best described the Yellow Jackets’ previous few weeks. Defensive end Greg Gathers, dealing with a serious kidney ailment that had made him a shadow of his old self early in the season, opted to apply for a medical redshirt. In what Tech officials called an adverse reaction to medication, Gathers was found acting strangely while in possession of a handgun in his dorm apartment. In the same time frame, two high-profile defensive reserves — defensive end Hobie Holiday and cornerback Albert Poree — quit the team. Then there was the injury to Hollings, a devastating blow for one of the feel-good stories of the year in college football. The former safety blew out his knee on a no-contact play against BYU.
Suddenly, Tech’s game with North Carolina took on added importance. Wanting to avoid an 0-2 conference start, the Yellow Jackets spent the week breaking in Eziemefe and freshman Michael Sampson. They spent the week answering questions about a struggling passing game. They spent the week trying to, as Gailey said all week long, deal with adversity.
Right before the game in Chapel Hill, they got some more. Standout kicker Luke Manget pulled a groin in pre-game workouts, leaving the kicking duties to senior walk-on Dan Burnett. Burnett missed his two official attempts, though he did connect on a field goal that was wiped out because of a UNC penalty.
“It’s not if you have adversity,” Gailey said, “it’s how you deal with it when you do have it.”
In order to do that, Tech went back to basics — and added a bit of spice. The running game has been Tech’s best play all season. In the second half of the BYU game, the Yellow Jackets finally seemed to figure that out, and the play calling became simple. Hollings left. Hollings right. Even with Hollings done for the season, Tech kept it on the ground with Eziemefe.
While the New Orleans native was chewing up yards on the ground, quarterback A.J. Suggs was able to settle it. He was booed lustily by the home faithful at Bobby Dodd Stadium during his three-interception performance against BYU. It was yet another distraction for Tech, as Gailey chided the Yellow Jacket fans all week, saying among other things that it’s not right for fans to boo college athletes.
Against the Tar Heels, Suggs threw a bad interception on the Yellow Jackets’ first possession. The play appeared to be a miscommunication between Suggs and freshman wide receiver LeKeldrick Bridges. But instead of spiraling into another “awful” performance, as Suggs dubbed his BYU game, the transfer from Tennessee rebounded.
A stay on the bench may have helped. Tech inserted Bilbo, whom many fans were calling for last week, on its third possession in a planned move. He ran a simplified offense, mainly running plays out of a shotgun set, because he still has a long, long way to go before he has an adequate grasp of the Jackets’ offensive system.
Bilbo, a redshirt freshman with NFL size (6-3, 220) and exciting athletic ability, ran quarterback draws and quarterback sweeps. He made plays with his feet and a couple with his arm. He also made a freshman mistake, tossing an ill-advised heave downfield while under pressure. After the game, he offered an explanation for why he had been a no-show in the last couple of games.
“I know I’m a little immature for a quarterback. Either one of us has the ability to start, but I’m a little immature in my reads. There’s not a lot of stuff I can do right now,” Bilbo said. “This is a way to get me experience, one or two series in big games. If I go out the first drive and do good, I get to go back out there. This is making me a better quarterback and a better leader.”
When Suggs returned to the game, he moved the Tech offense at its efficient best. He got the ball to Kerry Watkins and Will Glover, who abused the Tar Heels’ defensive backs and broke tackles. After converting on just 39 percent of third-down plays entering the game, the Yellow Jackets hit 11 of 17 against UNC. The threat of the running game led directly to one touchdown, as Suggs’ play-action fake drew in UNC cornerback Michael Waddell for an over-the-top completion to Glover.
The guys up front deserved some of that credit as well. Suggs was not sacked. With time, he was able to go through his progressions and find the open receivers.
Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien returned to his roots, calling more swing passes and hitches to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands quicker. He called far fewer shots downfield. And he didn’t hesitate to run, run, run. The Yellow Jackets had 49 rushing attempts for 185 yards on the day.
It was back to basics. Back to running behind that massive line. After weeks of exhausting injuries and off-the-field troubles, it was just what the Yellow Jackets needed.
Tiny 2002 Class Producing Early
Gailey didn’t have much time after his hiring to secure a recruiting class, but he seems to have had success thus far.
The Yellow Jackets signed only 13 players in the spring, an extremely low number, in a class that generally was ranked seventh in the conference. Indeed, less than half of the signees — Bridges, Eziemefe, Sampson, tight end George Cooper, wideout Xavier McGuire and defensive lineman Terron Pullen — had an impressive list of scholarship offers. That’s a generally undesirable phenomenon, normally found only in the recruiting classes at Duke, Wake Forest and other bottom-feeders.
Eziemefe committed to Tech two days before George O’Leary resigned to take the Notre Dame job. Eziemefe, who by that point had cancelled his other recruiting visits, decided to stick it out, correctly assuming the program would be able to secure another high-profile coach.
With Sampson also playing against UNC, the Yellow Jackets had used five true freshmen through the first five games of the season. Defensive backs Chris Reis and Venice Gilliam played only on special teams, but Eziemefe, Sampson and Bridges quickly were becoming important parts of the offense. After the losses of Gathers and Holiday, Pullen — the Class A player of the year in Georgia — began practicing with the second-team defense.
If the injury to Manget proves serious, scholarship kicker David Jordan — an all-state selection as a senior in Georgia — also could see playing time. Jordan, who made a 52-yarder in high school, has struggled in practice, but with Burnett missing two field goals — and Gailey admitting his misses changed game strategy — Jordan will get a closer look.
The Yellow Jackets likely will redshirt the other players in the recruiting class, barring further injuries or defections.