April 11, 2005
ATLANTA Much of Georgia Tech's success in football this season will depend on how quickly its young and inexperienced offensive line can become a productive unit. If spring practice is any indication, it could be a while.
With three new starters and a former starter playing in a new position, the Yellow Jackets' offensive line has been very much a work in progress. In late March and early April, the line struggled to keep the team's veteran defense off the Tech quarterbacks.
Some of the problems are understandable. The line has just one senior starter, right tackle Brad Honeycutt, a two-year starter at right guard. Sophomore left guard Matt Rhodes started the final eight games of last season. The only other lineman with starting experience is Salih Besirevic, currently projected as a backup, who started two games last year.
Left tackle Andrew Gardner, who will be charged with protecting quarterback Reggie Ball's blind side, is a redshirt freshman. Gardner has added more than 50 pounds to his frame since arriving at Tech, but the 6-7, 280-pounder remains raw.
Center Nate McManus is a sophomore who played sparingly last season. He's at center because of a lingering foot injury to sophomore Kevin Tuminello. Tuminello underwent surgery on the foot before the Yellow Jackets' bowl game last season, and he was still in a walking boot at the beginning of spring practice.
Converted defensive tackle Mansfield Wrotto is the projected starter at right guard, after two full seasons on the defensive line. He had never played guard before this spring.
There's little behind the starting five as well. The second-team line consists of three redshirt freshmen, Besirevic and a huge question mark at center. Tech signed five offensive linemen in February, and while the Yellow Jackets would like to redshirt all of them, one or two likely will have to play at least in reserve roles.
Offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris is one of the best teachers on the Tech staff, and during his three seasons in Atlanta he has shown an ability to put together a productive group even with injuries. Last season, only one of his linemen started every game.
In his five-year stint at Duke (1997-2001), D'Alessandris produced five NFL linemen. This year's Tech blockers often have been the last ones off the field during spring practice, with D'Alessandris prodding and pushing his young players.
The line certainly is getting tested in the spring by defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, one of the masterminds of college football. He has not held back at all during the practices, as he tries to get his defense ready for the season.
Tenuta is using all of his blitz packages and stunts. It's been a good test for the offensive linemen, but it's also one on which they haven't scored all that well.
Transfer Becomes Tailback Choice
Oklahoma transfer Tashard Choice recently was granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA, so he will not have to sit out this season at Tech. Throughout spring practice, Choice has been the Yellow Jackets' most impressive tailback, and that discussion includes former All-ACC rusher P.J. Daniels.
Choice, a 6-1, 205-pound redshirt sophomore, will have three seasons of eligibility at Tech. He applied for a hardship from the NCAA, claiming that special family circumstances required a move closer to home. Choice is from Riverdale, Ga., which is located about 20 minutes outside of Atlanta by car.
"It was very important for me," Choice said, "to be able to attend college close to home to be able to help my family."
Choice also will have a better chance to play in Atlanta than he would have had in Norman, Okla. He redshirted with the Sooners during the 2003 season and spent 2004 as a backup to freshman standout Adrian Peterson, carrying the ball just 22 times.
Given the Yellow Jackets' injury problems at tailback, Choice likely will be used far more often than that this season.
Daniels, an All-ACC tailback who set a Tech record with 283 rushing attempts in 2003, played in just eight games last year. He underwent in-season knee surgery, and his yards per carry dropped from 5.1 to 4.6. Throughout his career, Daniels has been nicked up, not always missing games but often needing extra care in practice.
With Daniels out for four games last year, Chris Woods and Rashaun Grant filled in adequately. But both Woods (hamstring) and Grant (neck) also were injured and missed time.
Choice gives the Yellow Jackets another option in the backfield. He'll likely pass Woods and Grant on the depth chart by the time spring is over. When the NCAA decision came down, Choice began getting more repetitions in practice.
With his impressive performances during spring drills, Choice made clear that he eventually could give Daniels a run for the starting role. Choice has shown explosive quickness, as well as a powerful running style. Even if he doesn't beat out Daniels, Choice already has proven that he deserves to be on the field this fall.
Scholarship Offers Extended Early
With more and more high school football players declaring their intentions in the summertime, the Yellow Jackets have been more aggressive in pursuing potential signees.
Though it has yet to receive a commitment for the Class of 2006, Tech has offers out to at least 16 high school juniors (rising seniors). Many of the players attended camp at Tech last summer.
That's something of a departure from the Yellow Jackets' recent approach, which utilized the senior seasons of potential recruits as valuable scouting time.
Hewitt Seeking Another Signee
The Georgia Tech basketball coaches continue to pursue another inside presence on the recruiting trail, both in the high school and junior college ranks. Tech would like to add another big man to its current four-man class, which includes center Alade Aminu.
The Yellow Jackets tried hard to land Kentucky center Jared Carter, who opted to stay close to home and play for Kentucky rather than for Tech or North Carolina.
The 7-1 Carter, who lives about 20 minutes from the Kentucky campus by car, did not visit Tech, despite repeated attempts from the staff to get him to visit. He was something of a late bloomer who really shot up the recruiting charts in recent weeks.
Aminu's stock also has risen. The 6-9, 205-pounder now is considered by some analysts a top-five prospect among senior centers, although he will need to add weight and strength in order to be a productive ACC post player.
Aminu is the only true inside player in the current four-man class, which also includes 6-5 wing D'Andre Bell, 6-3 shooting guard Lewis Clinch and 6-1 point guard Austin Jackson. Clinch, a top-50 prospect, is considered another potential All-ACC performer.
The Yellow Jackets have offered nearly every top big man in the country this season, and they have been seriously in the mix with several of them, including Connecticut signee Andrew Bynum. Eric Boateng (Duke) and Cyrus McGowan (Arkansas) also received offers from Tech. In addition, power forwards Brandon Costner (N.C. State) and Kevin Rogers (Baylor) were recruited hard by the Jackets.
With Carter's decision to stay close to home, the Yellow Jackets are still searching. New Jersey center prospect Hashim Bailey still could be a target. As one of the last big man prospects available, Bailey is attracting a lot of interest from schools up and down the East Coast. The Jackets also are looking into some junior college post players, although traditionally it's been hard for them to find one who can get past the admissions office.
Tech needs another big man because it has just three players taller than 6-6 on its projected 2005-06 roster: Aminu, 6-9 sophomore power forward Ra'Sean Dickey and 6-9 senior center Theodis Tarver. Promising sophomore Jeremis Smith, listed at 6-6 and 232 pounds, also can play power forward.