By Mike Knobler
May 2, 2006
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech's best news of spring football came after its final scrimmage had ended.
That's when the Yellow Jackets learned that rising sophomore cornerback Jahi Word-Daniels' knee injury wasn't as serious as originally feared. Word-Daniels will be back full-speed by the end of May, Tech coach Chan Gailey said.
The news provided a fitting conclusion to a spring more notable for the players off the field than the ones on it. Thirteen Yellow Jackets on the two-deep roster missed significant practice time because of injury or illness. Others were held out of one or more sessions to prepare for an upcoming exam or paper, as Gailey sought to avoid the academic ineligibility issues that cost him a starting defensive end last year.
The most costly injury was to first-team strong safety Joe Gaston, who tore up a knee and will miss the 2006 season. The good news for Tech is that Gaston is the only player expected to miss time this fall because of an injury this spring. The bad news is that he was playing a position where the team already lacked depth and experience.
Cornerback Kenny Scott is the only returning starter among the top five defensive backs on last season's 7-5 team. When Gaston got hurt, Tech immediately shifted expected cornerback starter Jamal Lewis to strong safety, where the 6-0, 190-pound junior will be asked to tackle like a player with more size. The domino effect created an opening at corner that will be the most-watched issue this August.
It could be a five-way race. If the Jackets pick a guy with a few years in the system, they'll probably go with Avery Roberson, a redshirt junior who has played mostly on special teams. But Roberson also is an option at free safety, the position he filled after an injury sidelined Djay Jones late in the spring. Gailey said Roberson is likely to practice at both positions for the first couple of weeks of preseason camp. Senior Sam Williams is likely to do the same but seems better-suited to safety.
Word-Daniels provides another cornerback option. His first name (pronounced Juh-HEE) means "dignity," and he might be dignifying Tech's pass coverage this season.
"He has always been a good one-on-one player. That's what we saw when we recruited him," Gailey said before Word-Daniels' injury. "He has got to learn the whole scheme. Once he learns the whole scheme, he's got a chance to be a very good player, but right now he's a little lost out there trying to learn everything."
"I'm really having to learn a lot and follow the older guys, keep up with them and continuously get better," Word-Daniels said.
When Word-Daniels got hurt, Pat Clark got a look at first-team cornerback. Auburn fans will remember him as the guy who caught six passes in the Yellow Jackets' season-opening victory over the Tigers in 2005. Clark finished his sophomore season with 15 receptions and was Tech's second-leading returning receiver, behind only All-American Calvin Johnson. When Gailey moved Clark to defensive back in January, he expected him to add depth to the secondary. Instead, Clark might be a starter.
That says a lot for the way Clark accepted his new challenge. He wasn't enthusiastic about the switch right away, but he followed his father's advice to make the best of the situation. And it wasn't an easy situation, either. Not only did he have to learn one new position, he had to learn two. Clark practiced at nickel back and cornerback.
"He made some big steps in spring practice," Gailey said after the final scrimmage. "I wasn't sure he could come this far this fast, but he did. We'll wait and see where he fits on the defense come fall, but he's definitely going to be a part of the defense."
Size-wise, Clark is at a disadvantage against tall receivers.
"I tell people I'm 5-9 1/2, 5-10 with shoes on," said Clark, who weighs 185 pounds. "You've got to use technique. There's a lot of big receivers out there. You've just got to get them to the ground whatever way possible."
Gailey said that size makes Clark a better fit on defense than on offense.
"There's been a lot of short corners that have played college and pro," said Gailey, a former NFL head coach and coordinator. "(Clark) recognizes that it's ultimately got a chance to be a very good move for him, because he sees like I do more short corners playing in the league than short receivers.
"He's got quick feet. He's got a little bit of a toughness attitude to him that he can develop over time. He's got a chance to be a good player before he gets out of here."
If any other position on the field was as wide-open as this one, you'd have to give serious consideration to the possibility that an incoming freshman could become the starter. But this is defensive back, which, next to quarterback and the offensive line, might be the most difficult position for a player to step into right out of high school. If someone does it at Tech, it could be Laurence "Poppy" Marius, who comes from Key West, Fla., as Scout.com's No. 26 cornerback in the nation.
Whoever wins the cornerback job should benefit from Tech's outstanding defensive front. All seven projected starters there have started games for the Jackets, who had one of the nation's best defenses over the past two seasons.
Tackle Darryl Richard returned stronger and more explosive than ever, after missing a year with an ACL tear. Tackle Joe Anoai (shoulder) sat out the spring but should be full-speed come fall. Linebackers Philip Wheeler and KaMichael Hall showed big-play athleticism in 2005; one will have to switch from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, but an injury that limited Hall for most of the spring made it difficult for Tech to see who'd be best in that spot.
There were fewer injuries and fewer questions on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Reggie Ball (arm) missed much of the spring with an injury he would have played through had it occurred in the fall. The big absence was receiver James Johnson (hamstring); he's the frontrunner to replace Damarius Bilbo at the receiver spot opposite Calvin Johnson. James Johnson missed the entire spring.
The good news there was the performance of the receivers who did practice. Coaches were most excited about slot receiver Chris Dunlap, a senior who finally showed the ability to catch passes consistently. Another senior, Xavier McGuire, will try to challenge James Johnson this fall. Redshirt freshman Martin Frierson caught three touchdown passes in the final scrimmage, and redshirt freshman Greg Smith had some strong moments, too.
With four starters back on the offensive line and former starting defensive tackle Mansfield Wrotto moving into the right tackle position, there wasn't much suspense up front all spring. Gailey was happy to get a chance to develop some backups at a position that was thin last season.
Tech has won seven games in each of Gailey's four years. This season, the first under his new five-year contract, could be even better. The Jackets could be ranked not just during the season, the way they were in 2005, but at the end, too.
"Expectations are high within our program every year," Gailey said. "They never put more on us than we have on ourselves."
Spring 2006 Overview
Fifth-year coach Chan Gailey has had his own personal version of Groundhog Day during his time in Atlanta. Whatever the expectations or personnel variables going into each season, the final results (7-6, 7-6, 7-5, 7-5) have looked amazingly familiar. Gailey has a new contract (for five years) and a new athletic director (Dan Radakovich) now, and Georgia Tech remains a model of consistency. The Yellow Jackets are one of only six teams in the nation that have played in nine consecutive bowls, and their front-line talent is capable of beating just about anybody. Depth remains a significant problem, however, and Tech fans believe that their program deserves better than its recent bowl destinations (Silicon Valley, Humanitarian, Champs Sports, Emerald) and seven-win seasons. Another top-heavy nonconference schedule (Notre Dame, Samford, Troy, at Georgia) also complicates matters.
Probable 2006 Starters
- -- redshirted ^ -- six/more 2005 starts
- -- injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
Jon Tenuta is one of the best defensive coordinators in college football, and he'll have a starting front seven that's loaded with talent, quickness, intelligence and experience. If everyone stays healthy, it could be a special season. Rock-solid returning starters: QB Reggie Ball, FB Mike Cox, WR Calvin Johnson, LT Andrew Gardner, DT Joe Anoai, LB KaMichael Hall, CB Kenny Scott. Also looking good: RB Tashard Choice, RB Jamaal Evans, WR Chris Dunlap, DE Darrell Robertson, DT Darryl Richard.
Cause For Concern?
Everyone knew that Tech's rebuilt secondary would be a potential problem area, and that was before the Yellow Jackets lost a projected 2006 starter (Joe Gaston) for the season with a knee injury. Youth, inexperience and/or position changes abound among the remaining candidates. Also: coaching turnover, tight end, kicker, punter, new long snapper, depth at multiple positions.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: DT Joe Anoai (shoulder), DT Elris Anyaibe, QB Reggie Ball (arm), FB Mike Cox (knee), SS Joe Gaston (knee), LB KaMichael Hall, WR James Johnson (hamstring), OL Jacob Lonowski (knee), TE Wayne Riles (back), CB Jahi Word-Daniels (knee).
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: PK Kyle Belcher (transfer/Georgia), WR Patrick Carter (transfer/Louisville), CB Brian Fleuridor, CB I-Perfection Harris (track), WR Eddie Ivery (medical/knee), OL Eddy Parker (medical/shoulder), DE Travis Parker (academics), LB Eric Williams (medical/shoulder).
Chart By: David Glenn