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While Frustrated Over Another Faraway Bowl Trip, Yellow Jackets Feel Firm Foundation Under Gailey

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

Georgia Tech (7-4) vs. Utah (6-5), Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m., ESPN

By Adam Van Brimmer
Roanoke (Va.) Times
December 22, 2005

ATLANTA -- The 9,000 or so fans in attendance at Georgia Tech's basketball game on Dec. 4 responded to word of the football team's bowl destination with a chorus of boos.

Tech's berth in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco disappointed a fan base finally beginning to rally around its team. The 7-4 Yellow Jackets finished 5-3 in the ACC -- tied for the third-best conference record -- and boasted road wins against Auburn and Miami.

Yet the ACC bowls picked seven teams in front of them, prompting their trip to the West Coast and relegating their fans to TV watchers rather than ticket buyers. The treatment of Tech and 8-3 Boston College (also 5-3 and Boise-bound) led directly to the league's decision in mid-December to re-evaluate the manner in which its postseason invitations are handed out. Of course, that did nothing for the Jackets or the Eagles this time.

Such is Georgia Tech's plight. For the first time since Chan Gailey took over as coach in 2002, the football team gave fans something to be excited about. The Yellow Jackets opened the season with the Auburn win, earned a national ranking for the first time since 2001, knocked off a top-five team (Miami) on the road, and took rival Georgia down to the wire in a 14-7 loss.

Rumor had it that Tech would get to play its bowl close to home, against an opponent from a major conference. The most popular theory had the Jackets facing Minnesota in the Music City Bowl in Nashville. Others put them in Charlotte for the Meineke Car Care Bowl or in Jacksonville for the Gator, though those scenarios were longshots all along. The Peach Bowl, and a date with Louisiana State in Atlanta, even remained a possibility until Florida State upset Virginia Tech in the ACC title game.

"That would have been great," senior safety Chris Reis said. "I would have loved to play LSU in our hometown."

The Emerald Bowl berth and a matchup with 6-5 Utah understandably drained much of the enthusiasm from the team and its fan base. The San Francisco trip will mark the fourth time in five seasons Tech has gone across the country for a postseason game. The 2001 team played in the Seattle Bowl, the 2002 team at the Silicon Valley Football Classic in San Jose, Calif., and the 2003 team at the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho.

Beyond the bowl game, though, the future looks bright for the Yellow Jackets. They're a young team with a coach who just received a new contract through the 2010 season.

The offense will return quarterback Reggie Ball, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, promising tailback Tashard Choice and four experienced offensive linemen next season.

Statistically, the Jackets showed little progress in 2005, averaging 19 points and 346 yards a game, after 22 points and 346 yards a year ago and 21 points and 331 yards in 2003. But they cut their turnovers almost in half -- 17 in 2005, versus 30 last season -- and showed the ability to be the ball-control offense Gailey favors. The line, asked to adjust to a new blocking scheme designed to take advantage of smaller but more athletic personnel up front, improved throughout the season.

Meanwhile, Ball showed tremendous maturity in his third year as the starter. He was sacked just six times in 10 games and threw 10 interceptions, eight fewer than in 2004.

"What (Ball) brings to our football team and what he's brought to the success of our team this year won't be found on any statistical sheet," Gailey said. "The intangibles of leadership, decision-making, understanding how the game is played, field position, and when to throw certain passes, those are the kind of things where he has come so far."

It helps to have an All-American as a target. Johnson contended with every kind of pass coverage ever devised this season but finished with 52 catches for 869 yards and six touchdowns. The only teams that dared to play him man-to-man were Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. He had 98 yards and a touchdown against the Demon Deacons, 123 yards and a touchdown against the Hokies.

Talent and experience -- three of the four returning linemen will be second-year starters -- should translate to a more dynamic offense in 2006. Then again, if Tech's defense remains dominant, Gailey likely will continue to call plays that limit turnover potential and keep the clock moving.

Tech ranked 10th in the country in total defense, 16th in scoring defense and 17th in turnover margin this season. Five starters will exhaust their eligibility in the bowl game, but Gailey's recruiting philosophy of annually signing a player for every defensive position has built some depth.

The team's three all-conference defenders, end Eric Henderson, linebacker Gerris Wilkinson and safety Dawan Landry, will be missed but are far from irreplaceable. The Yellow Jackets, who played four games this season without Henderson, will return three talented ends in Adamm Oliver, Darrell Robertson and Michael Johnson. Two-year starter KaMichael Hall will slide from outside linebacker to Wilkinson's spot in the middle, and Tech's secondary is loaded with athletic underclassmen.

"There's risk-reward (in play-calling)," Gailey said. "If you have a different kind of defense than we have, a different kind of situation, you want to do something else."

The one loss Tech's defense might not be able to absorb involves coordinator Jon Tenuta. His two-year contract will expire after this season, and he has not committed to coming back. Maryland reportedly contacted him about its vacancy in early December, before going in another direction. Virginia (Tenuta's alma mater) also had an opening into mid-December, after Al Golden left the Cavaliers for Temple.

"I want to become a head coach," said Tenuta, who made more than $250,000 this year. "If I get an opportunity to become a head coach, I'm going to do that."

Should Tenuta and the rest of Gailey's assistants return, it would be the third straight year the coaching staff remained intact. That's another important aspect of stability. Gailey did not ask for a raise in his latest contract, requesting more money for his assistants instead.

The Emerald Bowl remains a jumping-off point to next season, even if few fans will be on hand to watch it. Bowl practices include scrimmages and extra repetitions for the young players. Winning the game would give the team some momentum going into spring practice and next season, Gailey said. Tech won its last two bowl games, then went on to victory in its opener the following year.

The No. 24 Yellow Jackets likely would finish in the top 20 of the national rankings with an Emerald Bowl victory. With all of the talent coming back, they could be a top-15 team going into their 2006 opener against Notre Dame.

That could get the fans cheering again. 

THE EMERALD BOWL AND BEYOND

Departing Players

Starters (9)

P Ben Arndt, WR Damarius Bilbo, RB P.J. Daniels, CB Dennis Davis, DE Eric Henderson, RT Brad Honeycutt, FS Dawan Landry, SS Chris Reis, LB Gerris Wilkinson 

Other Contributors

OT Salih Besirevic, DT Omar Billy, FB Ajenavi Eziemefe, CB Reuben Houston, DS Gavin Tarquinio, RB Chris Woods 

2006 Returning Starters

Offense (8)

Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2006 Class
QB Reggie Ball 5-11/195 Sr.
FB Mike Cox 6-1/245 Jr.
WR Calvin Johnson 6-4/230 Jr.
TE George Cooper 6-5/260 Sr.
LT Andrew Gardner 6-6/285 So.
LG Matt Rhodes 6-3/285 Jr.
OC Kevin Tuminello 6-4/285 Jr.
RG Nate McManus 6-3/290 Jr. 

Defense (6)

DT Mansfield Wrotto 6-3/310 Sr.
DT Joe Anoai 6-3/275 Sr.
DE Adamm Oliver 6-4/260 Jr.
LB KaMichael Hall 6-0/225 Sr.
LB Philip Wheeler 6-2/225 Jr.
CB Kenny Scott 6-2/185 Sr. 
Special Teams (1)
PK Travis Bell 6-0/210 Jr.

Other Tested Returnees

Offense

RB Tashard Choice, WR Pat Clark, WR James Johnson, TE Michael Matthews

Defense

DT Elris Anyaibe, SS Joe Gaston, LB Gary Guyton, DE Michael Johnson, FS Djay Jones, CB Jamal Lewis, DT Darryl Richard, DE Darrell Robertson, DT Vance Walker, KO Mohamed Yahiaoui 

Projected 2006 Strengths

There is not a better assistant coach in the ACC, and perhaps in the nation, than Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. The guy is dangerous when he lacks proven personnel (see 2004), and he's mostly effective even when injuries (Henderson, Richard) and other attrition (Houston) hit hard, as happened in 2005. Assuming Tenuta stays for at least one more season, it will be interesting to see what he can do with a salty group that will include several All-ACC candidates (Anoai, Hall, Scott). Offensively, a four-year starter at quarterback (Ball) and one of the top players in the nation (Johnson) will lead eight returning starters. 

Projected 2006 Questions

Everyone at Tech is proud of its nine straight postseason games, and Chan Gailey certainly has proven himself to be a good coach, but is Gailey -- heading into year five -- really the man to lead this proud program to a winter destination more glamorous than the Seattle (2001), Silicon Valley (2002), Humanitarian (2003), Champs Sports (2004) and Emerald (2005) bowls? How long will Tenuta, who clearly wants to be a head coach, stay in Atlanta? With or without Tenuta, can Tech avoid in 2006 the devastating big plays that usually confound young, rebuilt secondaries? On offense, is Ball capable of one more step in his four-year progression as a starter -- from bad to mediocre to good to ... great? On special teams, will a new punter and a suddenly shaky kicker adversely impact the win column? When will Gailey's low-ranked recruiting classes finally catch up to him?

Chart By: Editor David Glenn