September 13, 2005
ATLANTA -- Entering August camp, the offensive line was Georgia Tech's biggest question mark. A light, inexperienced and thin unit, the line then experienced injuries in preseason practices that limited the number of snaps the starting five played together.
The group has three new starters, including left tackle Andrew Gardner, a redshirt freshman. Sophomores Matt Rhodes, Kevin Tuminello and Nate McManus form the interior of the line. Senior Brad Honeycutt, the most experienced and at 315 pounds the lone 300-pounder of the bunch, is at right tackle. The starting five averages 293 pounds, a number inflated by Honeycutt, the only player who weighs more than 290.
During the team's impressive 2-0 start, the line was a pleasant surprise. Coach Chan Gailey and line coach Joe D'Alessandris, an underrated assistant, constructed blocking schemes in the offseason to best utilize the unit's athletic ability and take advantage of its quickness. The gameplan features lots of counter plays, traps and pulling guards.
Senior tailback P.J. Daniels, a patient runner who is good at finding the right options in the new schemes, rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Yellow Jackets' first two games. The opponents were super-athletic Auburn and a North Carolina team that often stacked the box in an attempt to force Tech to throw the ball.
Rhodes, in particular, appears extremely comfortable with his new pulling and trapping tasks. The Jackets have had success running the counter right, with Rhodes, the left guard, and powerful fullback Mike Cox leading the way. Many of their biggest running plays early in the season came on that play.
The problem has been -- and likely will continue to be -- later in the game. Early on, the unusual schemes and constant movement have put opposing defenders on their heels, trying to anticipate where the blocks might be coming from. However, late in the game, when legs get heavy and running the ball is necessary, the lack of size has made an impact.
Late in the UNC game, Tech abandoned the run, even as it tried to run out the clock, because the Tar Heels' front was pushing around the Tech line. Instead, the Yellow Jackets went to a short passing game.
After spring practice, while evaluating personnel, Gailey and D'Alessandris decided to modify their schemes, implementing more movement and less power. Without big, physical linemen such as 2004 starters Leon Robinson, Andy Tidwell-Neal and Kyle Wallace, the old power plays simply were not going to work.
Gailey and D'Alessandris, who worked together many years ago in the World League, reverted to some of their old schemes. The success of the NFL's Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, under line coach Alex Gibbs, proved that size isn't everything when it comes to line play. Mobility and agility matter, too.
This is the way Tech is going in the future as well. The Yellow Jackets, who signed five offensive linemen in February and then converted a sixth (defensive lineman Jason Hill) in the fall, are seeking out athletic, agile linemen in the recruiting process. Gardner was an all-county basketball player. Will Miller, one of the true freshmen, played baseball in high school.
It seems a solid strategy at Tech, which only rarely has had success bringing in the mammoth linemen that some colleges can. The Yellow Jackets typically have relied more on speed, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Now the strategy is spreading.
That's fine in the future, when Tech looks stocked with 14 linemen having at least two years of eligibility after this season. But Tech fans are more concerned with this season.
Can Gailey and D'Alessandris continue to work their magic with the line, which continues to gain experience? Or, as opponents get more film on the Jackets, will be the counters and traps be less of a surprise, even early in the game? At some point, Tech probably will have to grind one out with a long, time-consuming drive. Is this unit
After Tech's exciting 2-0 start, the answers to those questions likely will go a long way toward determining whether this is going to be a special season or just another solid year.
Tenuta Again Earning Paychecks
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta continues to improvise -- and find success -- with a defense that lacks overall depth and bulk.
The offseason losses of defensive linemen Darryl Richard (knee) and Travis Parker (academics) and cornerback Reuben Houston (drug arrest) severely constricted the Yellow Jackets' depth and took away three talented and experienced players from a defense than ranked No. 12 in the nation last year.
In the early going this fall, the defense hasn't lived up to those lofty standards, largely because of poor tackling, but Tenuta's relentless blitzing schemes have created enough turnovers to keep Tech afloat.
Along the defensive front, the team has some depth. Tech rotates as many as eight players in those four positions, but elsewhere the ranks are extremely thin. The Jackets basically have four linebackers and five defensive backs they feel comfortable playing, and that's a very tough way to go through an entire season. In addition, the defensive backs have not been steady tacklers to this point, often allowing short passes to become long gains.
Tenuta handles the entire defense with very little input from Gailey. ("Sometimes I go in there and clap my hands," Gailey said.) This season, as in the past three years, Tenuta has worked his way around the personnel shortcomings.
Tenuta even has implemented a 3-3-5 defense at times, sometimes bringing two linebackers off the edge and dropping the ends into coverage. He's used Chris Reis, a converted linebacker now at safety, in run support and deep in pass coverage. He's taken advantage of the strong blitzing skills of linebackers KaMichael Hall, Philip Wheeler and nickel back Jamal Lewis, bringing them off the edges and creating urgency on the game's most important plays.
This Tech defense, perhaps more than those in the past under Tenuta, requires chances. It needs second-and-longs and third-and-longs to make plays, opportunities to get sacks or turnovers. By allowing big plays, the Yellow Jackets eliminate many of those chances.
In its first two games, Tech yielded five scoring drives. Only one (an eight-play drive) was longer than six plays. The Yellow Jackets, by contrast, had 10 scoring drives. All lasted at least six plays.
Tenuta, the highest-paid assistant coach in the ACC, is in the final season of a two-year, $525,000 contract. He's clearly proven his worth at Tech, but for a sharper contrast, check out North Carolina.
With Tenuta -- along with defensive linemen Ryan Sims and Julius Peppers -- the Tar Heels topped the ACC in total defense in 2001. Without Tenuta, UNC spent the last three seasons at or near the bottom of the national rankings on that side of the ball.