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Solid Gailey Era Entering New Chapter

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



April 17, 2007

ATLANTA — Many will see the 2007 football season as the start of a new era at Georgia Tech. But is it 1 AC (After Calvin Johnson)? Or 1 AB (After Reggie Ball)? Or 1 AP (After Patrick Nix)? Call it by whatever name you like, but one thing is unlikely to change this fall: the Yellow Jackets’ success, which included a Coastal Division title in 2006. Spring practice showed that there is plenty of punch left in Tech’s offense even without Johnson, the 2006 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner; Ball, a four-year starter at quarterback; and Nix, who excelled after taking over play-calling duties from head coach Chan Gailey. Tech might even have upgraded at two of those spots: quarterback and coordinator. Taylor Bennett followed up his 326-yard performance in the Gator Bowl loss to West Virginia with an efficient spring. He completed 56 percent of his passes without an interception in three scrimmages and seemed more at home in a dropback passing scheme than Ball did in the systems designed for him. Bennett lacks Ball’s ability to make plays with his feet, but with tailback Tashard Choice returning, as well as a veteran offensive line, Bennett doesn’t need to be much of a scrambler or an option threat. John Bond is the new coordinator, hired in February after Nix left for the same position at Miami. Bond spent three years at Northern Illinois coaching Heisman Trophy candidate Garrett Wolfe. Before that, Bond was at Army, where he coordinated a wide-open passing attack. Bond blended the two philosophies this spring. He kept the formations and running plays Nix and Gailey had designed for Choice, while tweaking the passing routes and reads to better suit Bennett’s strong game-management skills. Expect more intermediate routes and multiple-wideout sets. “We didn’t really change a whole lot,” Bennett said. “We just tweaked a few things. For the most part, we’ll grind it out like we have been and keep doing the things we do best.” Bennett is confident that the Jackets can do so without Johnson. Hailed as a once-a-generation wide receiver, Johnson is irreplaceable. But the emergence of redshirt freshmen Demaryius Thomas and Correy Earls should soften the impact of Johnson’s decision to leave early for the NFL. “If these guys continue to work, and they continue to master what we’re trying to do, we’ve got a chance to be pretty darn good,” said Bond, who made being the ACC’s top scoring offense his stated goal on the first day of practice. Much of that is contingent on key players remaining healthy. Bennett’s backup will have no college experience. Tech has depth at wide receiver, but it is largely unproven beyond veteran James Johnson. And as solid as the starting line is, the second- and third-stringers were run over routinely in scrimmages. A rash of injures or one or two at key skill spots, both scenarios Tech avoided last season, could imperil the offense this fall. Help will arrive with the recruiting class, though. Three offensive linemen and three receivers are in the group, including one of the Southeast’s most heralded tackles (Nick Claytor) and wideouts (D.J. Donley). The offense also should get some relief with the returns of kicker Travis Bell and punter Durant Brooks. Bell made 12 of 16 field goals from inside 50 yards last season. Brooks is an All-American and was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award last fall. He averaged 46 yards per kick, hitting 27 punts of 50-plus yards and pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line 35 times. Tech’s defense also has taken the pressure off the offense in recent years, and that shouldn’t change as long as Jon Tenuta is the coordinator. Tech graduated stars Joe Anoai (tackle), KaMichael Hall (linebacker) and Kenny Scott (cornerback) but returns the other eight starters, including All-America candidate Philip Wheeler at middle linebacker. The returnees will apply Tenuta’s trademark pass rush. The defense totaled 10 sacks in one spring scrimmage. Wheeler is the catalyst. He made nine sacks last year, despite offenses taking extra caution to block him. The pass rush looked particularly fearsome in the spring because of Tech’s depth at end. The Jackets rotated three quality players, Adamm Oliver, Darrell Robertson and Michael Johnson, at the two spots last year. All three return, and phenom Derrick Morgan, arguably the prize of the 2007 recruiting class, enrolled early to participate in spring practice. He wowed everybody in April. Regardless of who starts, the depth at end should help cover up any problems at cornerback. The corner opposite Scott was in flux all of last season, with three different players starting there. None of those three — Pat Clark, Jahi Word-Daniels and Avery Roberson — impressed Gailey in the spring, either. “The situation probably won’t be resolved until August,” Gailey said. “We have guys who I believed could make a jump this spring and help us next fall. But they’ve got to get better. Right now, we’re at the same level we were in the fall. To me, we have to keep getting better.” The other challenger for the cornerback spot was Laurence Marius, a star of the 2006 recruiting class. He looked lethargic during spring practice and appeared to be losing weight. He left school after the spring game and returned to his home in Key West, Fla., citing depression. His mother later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Marius had decided to give up football. As dire as the corner situation appears, Tech can take solace in the fact that it ranked ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense last year, despite the instability at the spot opposite Scott. Safeties Jamal Lewis and Djay Jones return, which should take some of the pressure off the cornerbacks. “(Cornerback is) not a concern for us,” Lewis said. “We just have to get together on one page as an entire secondary. We get better in the secondary, we should be able to come through and make big plays.” The Jackets avoided major injuries in spring practice, although several key contributors sat out because of offseason surgery. All are expected to be ready in the fall, including Jones, fullback Mike Cox and offensive linemen Cord Howard and Jacob Lonowski. How strongly Howard comes back from shoulder surgery could have an impact on the offensive line. He is projected as the right tackle, replacing the only graduating starter, Mansfield Wrotto. Howard’s surgically repaired shoulder makes him a better fit at left tackle, though, which led Gailey to work veteran Andrew Gardner on both sides in the spring.

The Jackets might be better served with Gardner on the right side anyway, considering that Bennett is a left-handed quarterback. The right tackle protects his blind side. All in all, Tech’s players and coaches considered spring practice a success. Bennett said it was the best by the offense in his career, which spans four springs. (He enrolled a semester early in 2004.) The hard part will be waiting for August. “We’ve progressed tremendously this spring,” Bennett said. “We’re going to move this thing into the fall, full steam ahead, and try to start off right where we left off (last year). We’re excited.”

-- Adam Van Brimmer
Morris News Service

Spring 2007 Overview

The PooP

Sixth-year coach Chan Gailey finally escaped his personal version of Groundhog Day — 7-6, 7-6, 7-5, 7-5 in his first four seasons at Georgia Tech — with a 9-5 mark and a trip to the ACC title game in 2006, although late losses to archrival Georgia (again), Wake Forest (in Jacksonville) and West Virginia (Gator Bowl) left many Tech fans with another empty feeling. Gailey has built a sturdy foundation in Atlanta, and even the Yellow Jackets’ perpetual depth concerns have been alleviated in some areas, but a special season won’t be easy.

Probable 2007 Starters

Offense

Pos. Name Ht./Wt. Class
QB Taylor Bennett 6-3/215 *Jr.
RB Tashard Choice^ 6-1/205 *Sr.
FB Mike Cox^+ 6-1/245 Sr.
WR James Johnson^ 6-0/190 *Jr.
WR Greg Smith 6-3/195 *So.
TE Colin Peek 6-6/250 *So.
LT Andrew Gardner^ 6-6/298 *Jr.
LG Matt Rhodes^ 6-3/280 *Sr.
OC Kevin Tuminello^ 6-4/292 *Sr.
RG Nate McManus^ 6-3/300 Sr.
RT Cord Howard+ 6-5/300 *So.
PK Travis Bell^ 6-0/220 *Sr.

Defense

DE Adamm Oliver^ 6-4/270 *Sr.
DT Vance Walker 6-2/275 So.
DT Darryl Richard^ 6-4/285 *Jr.
DE Darrell Robertson 6-5/245 Sr.
LB Gary Guyton^ 6-2/240 Sr.
LB Phillip Wheeler^ 6-2/230 *Sr.
LB Shane Bowen 6-1/225 So.
S Jamal Lewis^ 6-0/199 Sr.
S Djay Jones^+ 6-1/200 Sr.
CB Jahi Word-Daniels 6-0/185 Jr.
CB Avery Roberson^ 6-2/200 *Sr.
P Durant Brooks^ 6-1/202 *Sr.

  • — redshirted ^ — six/more 2006 starts
  • — injured/missed spring drills

Coming On Strong

Choice, Gardner, Oliver, Wheeler, Lewis and Brooks have All-ACC ability and were outstanding in April. Also: Cox, J. Johnson, Robertson, RB Jamaal Evans, DE Michael Johnson, depth on both lines, experience, good coordinators.

Cause For Concern?

There’s plenty of talent and experience on offense, but there’s a new OC (John Bond) and a new QB, and everyone’s job got tougher when Calvin Johnson turned pro early. Also: wideout, tight end, some special teams, depth.

2007 Schedule

Date Opponent 2006 Record
Sept. 1 at Notre Dame 10-3
Sept. 8 Samford 3-8 (1-7)
Sept. 15 Boston College 10-3 (5-3)
Sept. 22 at Virginia 5-7 (4-4)
Sept. 29 Clemson 8-5 (5-3)
Oct. 6 at Maryland 9-4 (5-3)
Oct. 13 at Miami 7-6 (3-5)
Oct. 20 Army 3-9
Oct. 27 OPEN
Nov. 1 Virginia Tech 10-3 (6-2)
Nov. 10 at Duke 0-12 (0-8)
Nov. 17 North Carolina 3-9 (2-6)
Nov. 24 Georgia 9-4 (4-4)

Spring Cleaning

The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12-24 months with eligibility remaining but were not listed as departures in our previous (annual) reviews: OL Randall Cox, QB Jonathan Garner (transfer/Marshall), FB Justin Guadagni (transfer/Slippery Rock), WR Calvin Johnson (NFL draft), CB Laurence Marius (left team), OL Will Miller (medical), TE Jon Morrison (medical), OL LeShawn Newberry (transfer/Lindenwood), TE Wayne Riles (chose to graduate).

Chart By: David Glenn