By Adam Van Brimmer
Morris News Service
August 30, 2007
ATLANTA Taylor Bennett's mother made the trip from her home in St. Louis to watch her son's college debut in the spring of 2004.
Wendy Jones was convinced her boy would quickly supplant Reggie Ball at the time the Atlantic Coast Conference's reigning rookie of the year as the team's quarterback. Bennett would be the one to lead an up-and-coming program out of mediocrity.
Her confidence was premature but not misplaced.
Three years later, Bennett takes over for Ball, who exhausted his eligibility last fall. And Bennett's promise, displayed in a stunning Gator Bowl performance, is the reason why expectations continue to grow on The Flats even given the departure of the greatest player in program history, wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
"It wasn't a fluke that he put up big numbers in the bowl game," first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Bond said. "He can make all the throws. He's a good leader. If Taylor Bennett plays up to his potential, he can be an outstanding quarterback.
"And I'm expecting that to happen."
Assuming Bennett performs, Georgia Tech can be considered a favorite to repeat as ACC Coastal Division champion. The Yellow Jackets posted the league's best regular-season record last fall (7-1) and made the ACC title game.
The Jackets return 17 starters from that team. The offensive returnees include four offensive linemen, a veteran fullback and the ACC's reigning rushing champion. Bennett will even have a Johnson to throw to, albeit James Johnson, the second-leading receiver behind Calvin last season.
Teammates already believe in Bennett. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns in January's Gator Bowl loss to West Virginia.
"The most important thing for a quarterback is to have everybody's respect when he steps in the huddle," Georgia Tech offensive tackle Andrew Gardner said. "Everybody knows he's going to do his best and make it happen, and Taylor has that."
Bennett is a much better pocket passer than Ball, and Bond tweaked the scheme former offensive coordinator Patrick Nix installed last year to take advantage of Bennett's skills.
Bond set a not-so-modest goal for the offense soon after taking the job in February lead the ACC in scoring. That's plenty of pressure for a first-year starting quarterback, although tailback Tashard Choice has volunteered to share it with Bennett.
Choice rushed for 1,473 yards last fall, averaging five yards a carry. But those numbers are deceiving.
Choice spent the first month of last season as the second option in the running game. Nix's offense was designed for Ball, the quarterback, to carry 15 times a game. But Ball sprained his ankle four games in, and he started handing off to Choice more often. Choice averaged 134 yards over the Yellow Jackets' last 10 games.
"Once I got the ball at least 18 times a game, it changed," Choice said. "Once they saw that, they kept giving me the ball."
Choice is aiming for 1,800-plus yards this season. Four of the linemen and his fullback, Mike Cox, have at least two years of starting experience each. And Bond knows how to utilize tailbacks he spent the last three years scheming for Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe, the nation's leading rusher last season.
"We have a lot of good players: all those linemen who have played and played together a stable of running backs, a bunch of talent at wide receiver," Bond said. "We have a question mark at the quarterback spot, but I have to believe that's going to be a real strength for us."
Bennett's perspective on his development helps, too. Unlike his mother, he knew he needed time to mature into a good quarterback. That's why Ball's standing didn't scare him away from Georgia Tech. Bennett understood he would redshirt as a freshman and spend two years as Ball's backup.
His approach: learn, learn, learn.
"When I got here, I couldn't tell you the difference between a cover-2 defense and a cover-3 or 4," Bennett said. "As much as I wanted to play, I knew I wasn't ready to play mentally or physically."
Plus, Bennett's learning curve proved relatively flat. He graduated high school a semester early so he could enroll at Georgia Tech and take part in 2004 spring practice.
Once drills started, he struggled even to get snaps cleanly. A year later, after Ball's inconsistency as a sophomore prompted Gailey to declare the quarterback job open, Bennett failed to overtake Ball. Bennett got better, but slowly. The coaches didn't get a glimpse of what Bennett would do in the Gator Bowl until last November.
"Guys mature at different levels, and for Taylor, he was a late bloomer in high school and a late bloomer here in college," Bond said. "Toward the latter part of last fall, I think he started to figure it out."
Bennett need only build on that this season. Georgia Tech's defense, among the nation's top 25 in most categories the last four years, is stacked again. Eight starters return, including All-American candidate Philip Wheeler. Wheeler recorded nine sacks last season, his first at the middle linebacker position.
The defense's strength is mainly up the middle. In addition to Wheeler, the Jackets return run-stopper Darryl Richard, a defensive tackle, and safeties Jamal Lewis and Djay Jones. The defense, described by Choice as "a big bully," has held opponents to an average of 19 points a game since Jon Tenuta took over as defensive coordinator in 2002.
And Wheeler said the defense won't back off just because the offense is expected to be more prolific.
"It would be great for us, great for the whole team, if the offense can score more points," Wheeler said. "But we don't look at what they do. We're competitors. We don't care what we have going for us on offense, we're going to get it done on defense."
The Yellow Jackets carry a need for retribution into this fall. They lost their last three games last season, all by three points. The offense failed them in two of those 18 points combined in losses to Georgia and Wake Forest while the defense let them down in the Gator Bowl by allowing West Virginia to rally from 18 points down in the second half.
The finish spoiled what was otherwise a great season and made a nine-win year feel mediocre.
"We took a step forward last year," Gailey said. "I think we've been taking steps forward, but this one was more visible to Joe Blow. I've been seeing it, but it's been hard for other people to see it. But now everybody has seen us take a small step. We're not there. We still have a long way to go."
Bennett can take them the rest of the way this fall.
GEORGIA TECH INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- Chan Gailey said replacing Calvin Johnson's contribution would require a group effort from Georgia Tech's wide receivers. If preseason practice is any indication, the group is huge and talented. James Johnson is the lone veteran, but three other returnees impressed in practice and scrimmages, as did a true freshman.
Redshirt sophomore Greg Smith emerged as the team's No. 1 receiver, surpassing Johnson according to position coach Buddy Geis. Smith, who had seven catches for 113 yards last season, can play all three wideout positions and may be the most sure-handed of the bunch.
Redshirt freshmen Demaryius Thomas and Correy Earls built on the promise they showed in spring practice. Thomas, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, is already being called "Baby Calvin" because of his Johnson-like athleticism, particularly in the way he goes after fade passes and deep balls. Earls battled injury throughout the preseason but is clearly the speedster of the group.
True freshman D.J. Donley likely earned himself playing time with his rapid development. One of the prizes of Georgia Tech's 2007 recruiting class, Donley is another big, athletic target in the Calvin Johnson mold.
James Johnson also had a strong preseason despite a nagging thigh injury. He and quarterback Taylor Bennett have been roommates since they were freshmen, and the chemistry shows on the field. Johnson was the Yellow Jackets' second-leading receiver a year ago with 608 yards half of Calvin Johnson's total.
New offensive coordinator John Bond will also use the tight end and running backs in the passing game. Backup tailback Rashaun Grant has been employed as a slot receiver and H-back in scrimmages and gives the offense a Reggie Bush-like threat.
- The end of quarterback Reggie Ball's career was supposed to enliven competition for the spot. Yet somehow Georgia Tech's depth is dwindling at the spot.
Taylor Bennett, a redshirt junior, is the unquestioned starter. He backed up his 326-yard Gator Bowl performance with a strong spring and equally impressive preseason. The ranks behind him have changed, however.
Freshman Steven Threet, who enrolled in school in January and was expected to challenge for the second-string job, transferred to Michigan in July. Redshirt freshman Byron Ingram left the team a week into preseason.
Add those two departures with that of Jonathan Garner, who quit the team in the spring, and Georgia Tech is down to three quarterbacks behind Bennett, only one of whom has ever taken a college snap and that's fourth-stringer Kyle Manley.
Calvin Booker, an Auburn transfer, is the backup. He came out of the spring locked in competition with Threet for the No. 2 job. He dropped 20 pounds over the summer, going from 245 to 225, and has adopted Bennett's approach to preparation and film study. He's not ready to be the every-week starter but could fill in for Bennett if called upon.
True freshman Josh Nesbitt is the third-stringer but will see action in special situations. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder is the lone running threat among Georgia Tech's quarterbacks. He rushed eight times for 69 yards in two preseason scrimmages. Nesbitt rushed for more than 1,700 yards his last two seasons at Greene County High School. His passing ability is the only thing keeping him from challenging Booker. Nesbitt doesn't lack for arm strength but is inconsistent in his throws and is still learning the nuances of a college offense. Don't be surprised to see him take a handful of snaps a game, though, particularly down near the goal line in a role similar to that played by Florida's Tim Tebow a year ago.
Manley is the fourth-stringer and invaluable as a scout-team quarterback. The redshirt junior played late in a blowout game last season, completing both his pass attempts for eight yards.
- Georgia Tech's 2007 recruiting class appears worthy of the rave reviews it received in February. Donley and Nesbitt are two of seven true freshmen who could make significant contributions this fall.
Defensive end Derrick Morgan should see the most snaps of his peers, even though he plays a position stacked with veterans. Morgan benefited from his decision to enroll early and take part in spring practice and will be among the defensive end rotation along with Darrell Robertson, Adamm Oliver and Michael Johnson when the Jackets open the season against Notre Dame.
Georgia Tech's lack of depth in the secondary could mean playing time for true freshmen Morgan Burnett and Mario Butler. Both played with the second team in scrimmages and are talented enough to make defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta re-think his policy against playing true freshman defensive backs.
Tailback Jonathan Dwyer performed well in the preseason and could end up ahead of sophomore Jamaal Evans on the depth chart when the season starts. Dwyer had 22 carries the most of any tailback in two preseason scrimmages and finished with 76 yards. He did fumble twice, both times in goal-line situations, which could make Gailey hesitant to play him at crucial times.
Another freshman to challenge for playing time in the preseason was offensive tackle Clyde Yandell. Georgia Tech's two starting tackles, Andrew Gardner and A.J. Smith, missed practice because of injury, and Yandell worked extensively at Gardner's left tackle spot.
- Lucky for Georgia Tech's cornerbacks the Yellow Jackets don't play in the WAC. Fears about pass defense appear justified, although Jahi Word-Daniels, who came on late last season, should do well on one side. Word-Daniels added 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason and underwent minor knee surgery, which shows in his leaping ability.
The spot opposite Word-Daniels could be in flux again, just like a year ago. Avery Roberson is the starter and is at least playing the position full-time this fall after splitting time between corner and safety last year because of injuries. Roberson is a solid tackler but is still learning the finer points of pass coverage. Backing up Word-Daniels and Roberson is Pat Clark, who moved to defense from wide receiver in 2006 spring practice and is still adjusting to the foreign position. Behind Clark is redshirt freshman Dominique Reese and Butler, the true freshman.
The Yellow Jackets searched for continuity in their nickel packages throughout the preseason, with Roberson, Clark and strong safety Jamal Lewis playing several different spots.
The Big Picture
Georgia Tech is back where it was under George O'Leary in the late 1990s a contender for the ACC title. The Yellow Jackets have the talent and experience to repeat as Coastal Division champions and reach the ACC title game, as most of their division is in rebuilding mode. But they'd better do it this season. Star tailback Tashard Choice, three starting offensive linemen, two linebackers and three defensive backs will exhaust their eligibility this fall. The schedule helps, too. Tech plays its toughest ACC games (Boston College, Clemson, Virginia Tech) at home, and avoids Florida State and Wake Forest.
Tech's offense scored more points in league games last season than any other ACC team, with wideout Calvin Johnson drawing most of the attention. The scheme became predictable over the course of 2006, though, and the Jackets managed just 18 points (one touchdown) in late-season losses to Georgia and Wake. Tech expects to be more multiple and just as prolific this fall, even without Johnson. First-year coordinator John Bond tweaked the offense to take advantage of quarterback Taylor Bennett's pocket-passing ability. And he still has Choice, the ACC's reigning rushing champion, in the backfield.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 5-3 (3) 7-5 Carquest Bowl (W)
1998 7-1 (1) 10-2 Gator Bowl (W)
1999 5-3 (2) 8-4 Gator Bowl (L)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Peach Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 8-5 Seattle Bowl (W)
2002 4-4 (5) 7-6 Silicon Valley (L)
2003 4-4 (4) 7-6 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
2004 4-4 (6) 7-5 Champs Bowl (W)
2005 5-3 (3C) 7-5 Emerald Bowl (L)
2006 7-1 (1C) 9-5 Gator Bowl (L)
ACC: 51-29 (.638)
Overall: 79-46 (.632)
Slow recruiting and misfortune forced Tech coach Chan Gailey to go young along his lines two years ago, and the Jackets should reap the benefits this fall. The offensive line returns four players with at least two years of starting experience, and along with three-year starting fullback Mike Cox should open up running room for Choice. The defensive front is equally stacked, with three ends with extensive playing experience and a fourth that might be the most talented of the bunch and a veteran run-stopper in tackle Darryl Richard.
Coming On Strong
Replacing Johnson's receiving yards will be a group effort. James Johnson, the "Other Johnson" and second-leading receiver last season, is the lone veteran. But underclassmen Greg Smith, Demaryius Thomas and Correy Earls impressed in spring and preseason practices, and true freshman D.J. Donley also could contribute. Thomas is the player considered the next star, but Johnson has remarkable chemistry with Bennett and is a sure-handed, precise route runner.
Cause For Concern?
The Yellow Jackets lack depth at vital positions, specifically quarterback and linebacker. Bennett is the only QB among the top three on the depth chart with any college experience. At linebacker, Philip Wheeler and Gary Guyton are All-ACC caliber All-American in Wheeler's case but have no heir apparents behind them. There is plenty of talent in the freshman class, but Tech can't contend at the top of the ACC with a bunch of greenhorns starting.
The Whole Truth
"We took a step forward last year. I think we've been taking steps forward, but this one was more visible to Joe Blow. I've been seeing it, but it's been hard for other people to see it. But now everybody has seen us take a small step. We're not there. We still have a long way to go."
Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey
Chart By: The Tech Insider