October 26, 2005
ATLANTA - One of the worst things that could have happened to the Georgia Tech football program - and, by extension, head coach Chan Gailey - was the postponement of the team's game at Miami. The game, moved from Oct. 22 to Nov. 19 because of the threat of Hurricane Wilma in South Florida, now leaves the Yellow Jackets with a brutal finishing schedule.
Tech now will play for five consecutive weeks to end the season. After games at home against Clemson and Wake Forest - near must-wins at this point - Tech will finish at Virginia, at Miami and at home against Georgia. In other words, the Yellow Jackets will finish the season with three consecutive games against ranked opponents, including back-to-back contests against top-10 teams.
Tech was supposed to have a week off before the showdown with rival Georgia. Now the Jackets must go on the road for another top-10 showdown before playing the Bulldogs.
Consider two likely scenarios. In one, the Yellow Jackets beat both Clemson and Wake Forest to get to 6-2, then stumble down the stretch with three consecutive defeats. In the other, the Yellow Jackets split with Clemson and Wake to get to 5-3, so they'll need to upset at least one of the final three opponents just to become bowl-eligible.
Neither scenario bodes well for the Yellow Jackets and Gailey, their embattled head coach. And at 4-2, Gailey is suddenly embattled, another drawback of moving the Miami game.
Without a football game to worry about - or write about - prominent Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley wrote that Gailey was not long for the Yellow Jackets. In a one-newspaper town, the AJC carries considerable influence. So the Bradley column - again, with no game to focus on - was a talker all week for the Tech faithful.
Remember, it was Bradley's column before last year's Champs Sports Bowl that set the standard for this season. In that piece, Tech athletic director Dave Braine said he needed to see improvement from his football team this year. Despite the fact that much of Braine's sentiments had been reported before, it was Bradley's more widely read column that ingrained the "more than six wins" standard in most fans' minds.
Now, midway through the season, the heat again is turned up on Gailey, whose current contract goes through only the 2006 season.
Unless Braine announces a contract extension for Gailey in the next few weeks, the head coach's job status will become more and more the dominant story line surrounding the Yellow Jackets. Forget what all-world wide receiver Calvin Johnson is doing, or the play of the offensive line. All of that will be obscured.
The situation cannot possibly be helping recruiting, where the Yellow Jackets are lagging so far. Tech simply cannot afford another subpar class. There are pressing needs in the secondary, at defensive tackle and at linebacker, plus depth concerns at tailback.
In reality, the Jackets are no more than a few Travis Bell missed field goals and a clutch Johnson catch away from a 5-1 record and a top-20 ranking.
WHEELER OFFERS HOPE FOR FUTURE
Throughout the 2004 season, Tech players raved about someone who made no plays on Saturdays, a guy very few people actually got to see perform. Linebacker Philip Wheeler, according to players on the 2004 team, showcased amazing athletic ability and disrupted the offense while working on the scout team.
Now Wheeler, who redshirted last season to gain maturity and knowledge of the defense, is proving those supporters right. He easily has been the team's most dynamic player on defense, and along with tackle Joe Anoai one of the best.
Though Wheeler's knowledge of the defense remains a work in progress, his athleticism has more than made up for the occasional missed assignments and alignments.
Wheeler's emergence, coupled with the solid play of end Darrell Robertson, is a positive sign for the future. In two years, Robertson, freshman end Michael Johnson and Wheeler will be the nucleus of the defense, for whatever coach is roaming the sidelines.
But the Yellow Jackets must get better in the secondary. The offseason loss of cornerback Reuben Houston (drug conspiracy charges) has proven to be the biggest blow to a defense that also lost line starters Darryl Richard (knee) and Travis Parker (academics). Richard, the best player of that lot, certainly would have helped, too.
But Houston is the most sorely missed. Senior cornerback Dennis Davis has been a disappointment. Even when the secondary plays well, as in a victory against Duke, it still has allowed big plays and shown poor tackling form.
BASKETBALL FOCUS ON POINT GUARD
For the first time in his six-year tenure at Georgia Tech, basketball coach Paul Hewitt entered fall practice without a desirable point guard plan. In his first two years, Hewitt had Tony Akins. For the last three, the coach turned to Jarrett Jack.
Now the Yellow Jackets lack a clear-cut No. 1 point guard. Zam Fredrick, a sophomore who played sparingly in 2004-05 and nearly transferred to South Carolina in the offseason, must prove he can handle the role, both offensively and defensively. The questions center on both intangibles (tenacity, vocal leadership) and some things that are more tangible (defensive abilities, ball-handling).
Fredrick is a laid-back personality.
"Good point guards are high-energy guys," Hewitt said. "You don't see point guards who are not. I was watching Jason Kidd practicing on NBA TV, and there's a big difference watching his team practice as opposed to some of the others. It's like night and day. Your point guard can't be a shy, quiet guy. He's got to be high-energy."
As a result, Tech fans should keep at least two other players in mind. Guard/forward Mario West is without question the team's most tenacious defender. Freshman Paco Diaw is a long, highly skilled passer who seems to possess the energy level Hewitt is seeking.
Fredrick, though, is probably the most skilled of the three. He made tremendous progress last season in re-shaping his body and learning about the college game's defensive intensity. In the team's preseason media sessions, he showed some maturity in answering repeated questions about his transfer saga. Fredrick spent much of the spring deciding between returning to Tech (his wishes) and jumping to South Carolina (his father's).
Fredrick appears to have gained strength from the ordeal and the introspection the decision required. After a year of sitting and watching, he is itching to finally get back on the court and play. The year was difficult, largely because of the constant reminders from home about how great Fredrick was in high school.
The Yellow Jackets certainly could use some of that greatness this season.