October 6, 2003
ATLANTA Maddeningly inconsistent. That's the best way to sum up the Yellow Jackets so far this season. It's one of the pitfalls of playing with youth and inexperience, particularly when a true freshman takes every snap under center. Rookie quarterback Reggie Ball has shown he's capable of leading the Yellow Jackets to amazing heights, but he's just as likely to misfire on throws all day long. Ball, who earned the job in fall practice, is just months out of high school, but already he has guided Georgia Tech to giant upsets (Auburn, N.C. State) and raised the expectation level for himself. But just as Ball has been outstanding in several games, he's left the coaching staff debating whether or not to bench him in others. After sticking with him in a blowout loss to Clemson and then watching him engineer a last-minute comeback against Vanderbilt, the Tech staff decided that Ball barring injury will take every important snap for the rest of the season. Having decided he's their man, the staff thinks he needs to gain every bit of experience he can this season. There's another reason, one that explains why head coach Chan Gailey has stuck with other true freshmen who have made mistakes or played poorly. Gailey has stated repeatedly that removing a player can break his spirit and, knowing that he needs these true freshmen to be contributors for the rest of their careers, Gailey has been loathe to fiddle with their psyches. It's the main reason he's stuck with Kenny Scott as his return man. Scott, a highly touted cornerback out of Florida, earned the kick returner's job because of his blazing speed and big-play capability. Those skills were on full display when Scott blocked a punt to set up a touchdown and returned a kick 90 yards against N.C. State. But Scott also has fumbled once, muffed another and hesitated in the end zone, costing Tech valuable field position. Still, he keeps returning kicks. Scott and Ball are just two of the 11 true freshmen the Yellow Jackets have played this season, the most in the program's history since 1995, George O'Leary's first full year as head coach. That 1995 team, which played 15 true freshmen, finished 6-5 and four years later improved to 10-2. Gailey can only hope for similar results when he finishes his four-year plan. Rookie defensive tackle Mansfield Wrotto, a starter in four of the team's first six games, has the size to play, but he lacks the strength. But the 6-3, 300-pounder is Tech's best option, so the Yellow Jackets continue to run him out there. In some games, Wrotto has been an effective run stopper. In others, he's completely disappeared. That's exactly the risk Gailey has been running with so many true freshmen. Nowhere has that been more evident than on the Yellow Jackets' special teams. In addition to Scott, true freshmen Phillip Wheeler, KaMichael Hall, Nick Moore, Joe Gaston, Brian Fleuridor, Sam Williams and Chris Dunlap are on nearly every special team. In addition to the true freshmen, the special teams are populated with other inexperienced players who are getting their first significant playing time on the field. The result: Tech's most up-and-down unit of all. These are players who were stars in high school. Some played sparingly, if at all, on special teams. Quickly, they're having to learn the importance of special teams play. Tech's kickoff coverage ranks among the worst in the conference, and the Yellow Jackets have taken to squib kicking or short kicking to prevent long returns. Gaston has been the most impressive special teams player thus far, getting a hand in numerous tackles. The Yellow Jackets (3-3, 1-2 ACC) have taken their fans on a roller-coaster ride this season, but the prospects are looking up. With so many young players contributing, the future is looking a bit brighter in Atlanta than it has in recent months. Tech has a legitimate shot at qualifying for a bowl game this year. With so many young players, it's imperative that they do, giving the team another few weeks of practice. As the Yellow Jackets can attest, in their current predicament, every little bit helps. Reis, Gaston Making Special Plays It's not hard to envision Gaston, a safety out of Marietta, Ga., becoming Tech's special teams leader next season. This year that job belongs to safety Chris Reis. When Reis was out with a concussion, which he suffered in the Florida State game, Tech's special teams play fell apart. Upon Reis' return, the Yellow Jackets played much better. It's hard to pin it all on one player, but Reis makes all of the special teams calls and is a big factor in that part of the game. Reis got his first extensive playing time from scrimmage against N.C. State, when the Yellow Jackets went to a dime coverage to stop the Wolfpack's passing attack. In the game, he showed why the Jackets are thinking about moving him to outside linebacker next year, after Tech's three senior starting linebackers Keyaron Fox, Daryl Smith and Ather Brown exhaust their eligibility. Reis, a 6-0, 210-pound sophomore, demonstrated an ability to get to the quarterback on blitzes and physicality with hitting receivers coming off the line. Whether or not Reis is strong enough or fast enough to handle the weakside linebacker position over the course of the season remains to be seen. But he's not much smaller than recent Tech starter Recardo Wimbush, who manned the position ably for four years. Reis reminds many in the Tech program of former safety Jeremy Muyres, who was an all-conference performer as a senior. Hewitt Hoping For Moore Help Clarence Moore is returning to the men's basketball team, or so the program thinks and hopes heading into fall practice. Moore has been working out with the rest of the team since the end of last season, and the 6-5 swingman is expected to be a valuable contributor off the bench this year. Moore, who started 29 of 31 games in 2001-02, quit the team after that season, claiming he'd lost the desire to play. But Moore began working out with the team last year and sat on the bench, in street clothes, for a few games in December. Just when it looked as if Moore would come back, he again decided it wasn't for him. The team had voted to allow Moore to return. Now it seems he's serious about coming back. Tech head coach Paul Hewitt is trying to downplay the significance of Moore's return, declining to comment on it until fall practice starts. Surely, Hewitt is worried about another change of heart from Moore, a person Hewitt is very fond of, and the coach is eager to maintain the positive chemistry of the team he has returning. On a team that lost productive inside players Chris Bosh (NBA) and Ed Nelson (transfer) prematurely, Moore could provide valuable minutes at small forward or even power forward, if the Jackets go small as is expected from time to time.