November 30, 2004 ATLANTA Just as Jeremis Smith was establishing himself in the Georgia Tech basketball rotation, the freshman forward suffered a gruesome knee injury, dislocating his right kneecap.
Smith, a rugged 6-6, 232-pounder from Texas, was the first player off the Yellow Jackets' bench against Arkansas-Little Rock, the game in which he was injured. Smith played 18 minutes in the game. He was the lone freshman to play in the Jackets' tough contest at Illinois-Chicago.
Despite missing more than a week of preseason practice with a stress reaction, Smith quickly earned minutes with his tough rebounding in reserve of Anthony McHenry at power forward. Without Smith, who will be out for at least three months and could sit out the entire season as a medical redshirt, Tech will have to shuffle its rotation.
Backup center Theodis Tarver and forward Isma'il Muhammad will have to take up Smith's minutes at power forward. In turn, guard B.J. Elder will have to spend more time at wing forward (in place of Muhammad), opening more minutes in the backcourt for Will Bynum and, potentially, Mario West and/or freshmen Zam Fredrick and Anthony Morrow.
Meanwhile, without Tarver to solely replace starting center Luke Schenscher, freshman Ra'Sean Dickey, gifted offensively but weak with the ball, will have to play a few minutes in the post. Tech coach Paul Hewitt talked in mid-November with Dickey, who did not play in the Yellow Jackets' first two games, about taking a redshirt season, but Dickey declined. Now Tech will need him, perhaps far more than anyone originally expected.
Football Facing Tough Questions
The Yellow Jackets squandered their best chance in four seasons to beat rival Georgia in a bizarre finish. Quarterback Reggie Ball apparently did not realize what down it was, thus spiking the ball on third down and throwing it away on fourth down in Georgia territory during the final minute of Tech's 19-13 loss.
Some of the blame surely rested with Ball, whose mistakes mental and physical have been difficult for Tech to overcome this season. Ball, who confounded the coaching staff with his interceptions (17) all year, is not assured of being the starter as a junior next fall.
Replacing quarterbacks isn't easy. Gailey announced that the job would be open in the spring of 2004, and now the competition surely will be even more open in the spring of 2005. Ball, by his knowledge of the offense, earned the job this year before any real battle began with Patrick Carter. Freshman Taylor Bennett, who possesses more classic quarterback skills than Ball, will be prepared for the 2005 competition.
But the clock management fiasco in Athens was not all Ball's fault. Tech coach Chan Gailey called for the spike, then realizing it was third down tried to change the play. In the seconds between the spike and fourth down, no one managed to communicate to the Tech players that it was indeed fourth down. Most of the offensive players believed it was third down, as the stadium scoreboard indicated.
Certainly, some of the heat must be placed on Gailey. Clock management is largely the coach's responsibility. Communication between him and the quarterback is essential.
Gailey took the blame for the spike call, but little else, after the game. Forgiving the decision to spike the ball when plenty of time remained to get off a play, Gailey should have huddled his team (or, at least, Ball) and told them, repeatedly if necessary, that it was fourth down.
It was a bitter and frustrating way for Tech to end the regular season, especially at Georgia, and it projected a sense of incompetence on the part of the entire team. How often do you see a game end a close, bitter game against a rival with the quarterback simply throwing the ball away on fourth-and-21? It just doesn't happen, or at least it shouldn't happen.
That falls on the coach, especially the head coach. Certainly, coaches throughout football have struggled with end-game situations, and a one-time gaffe can be excused. But the Yellow Jackets have had problems all season with formations, personnel groupings and running incorrect routes.
In several games, Ball had to burn timeouts because of improper personnel or play calls. Against Virginia, he had to call a timeout on the second play from scrimmage, after Gailey sent in the wrong personnel grouping. Later, in the Virginia game, with Tech threatening to get back in it, wideout Levon Thomas ran the wrong pattern, resulting in an interception in the end zone.
Ball gets most of the blame, and in some cases it's deserved. But Gailey, now in his third season at Tech, should be held more accountable for some of the mistakes. Fans are fed up with Ball and Gailey, whose offenses have lacked creativity and production during his time in Atlanta. Ceding the play-calling duties could ease some of the pressure.
Tech athletic director Dave Braine raised the stakes in November, saying before the Georgia game that he expected both teams to be ranked when they meet next season.
"I will be very disappointed next year if both teams are not ranked," Braine
told the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, during the week of the game. It was
the first time Braine laid out such a specific expectation level for the Yellow Jackets, at least publicly.
Considering Georgia's high ranking for the last three seasons, it is Tech that has much work to do. The next step for the Jackets may start with Braine, who has consistently expressed his support for Gailey throughout the embattled coach's tenure.
Gailey, 20-17 in three seasons, still is working on his initial five-year contract, which he signed before the 2002 season. Discussions about an extension have been off and on. This offseason, it seems, would be the time to get something done.
With 10 starters returning on defense and most of the Yellow Jackets' skill position players also back, 2005 appears to be their best chance to return to the rankings. The schedule, however, is brutal. Trips to Auburn, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech and a home game against Georgia figure to present a difficult challenge.