A Burr Under The Saddle

Aug. 29, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– The tenor has been different for a while, but the point of real meaning is nigh and that was evident Monday when Paul Johnson began talking about football for real again, for the first time in nearly eight very long months at Georgia Tech.

When the boss man tells of his wife blurting out something first thing in the morning about the season finally being here, something is up.

Indeed, the Yellow Jackets are on the front porch, about to knock on the door and enter a season of atonement. How fitting that in talking at times about tiny Western Carolina, his alma mater and Tech’s season-opening opponent Thursday, Johnson might well have been talking about his own squad.

Johnson said that some of the Catamounts, specifically those from Georgia, may show up Thursday night in Bobby Dodd Stadium with, “a little burr under their saddle to show you that we probably should have recruited them.”

He might well have been talking about his own players.

The Jackets were humbled last season, slipping to 6-7 one season after reigning atop the ACC. Players were rarely in sync with one another nor in tune with the agenda of the greater good. The lack of synchronization showed on the field.

So there had better be burrs under all Jackets’ saddles.

The head coach said he and his staff are looking for players who bring a certain “attitude” to their work, and suspicion suggests that any players who

appear to be missing that burr won’t play for long.

Scattershooting . . .

# Looking at the depth chart released Monday by Tech, the Jackets have – as nearly every team every year does to some degree – a youth escape clause. Johnson said, “I think I counted 20 players of the 64 on the hotel list who are freshmen or redshirt freshmen.”

Looking deeper, there are eight freshmen and redshirt freshmen on the offensive two-deep – including three who just arrived on campus several weeks ago to play offensive line. Trey Braun, Shaquille Mason and Errin Joe are all true freshmen offensive linemen who figure to play this year.

There are just two freshmen or redshirt freshman on the defensive two-deep: inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy and true frosh Jamal Golden at cornerback. Both are listed as reserves.

True freshman Zach Laskey will be the punt returner, in large measure, “because he catches it,” Johnson said.

# Perhaps if there is one position where Tech is better equipped to deal with injuries, it is A-back. There, B.J. Bostic remains out, four-year starter Roddy Jones is doubtful and backup Marcus Wright is as well. Orwin Smith and Embry Peeples will start with Tony Zenon and Robert Godhigh first up among reserves.

# Daniel Drummond, a converted B-back, has locked down a starting inside linebacker position in the same time it took former quarterback David Sims to sew up the starting B-back position. Both players began their transitions in spring practice.

# Western Carolina struggled to a 2-9 record last season, and returns 13 starters from that team, including 6-foot-7 part-time quarterback Brandon Pechloff. WCU produced Johnson, although he may owe a greater debt to his current well-being to his former high school, Avery County, in Newland, N.C.

Johnson played high school ball, but did not gear up in college.

He knew he wanted to be a coach, though, and soon after graduating from WCU he landed a high school job elsewhere in North Carolina.

Johnson never made it to that job. One week before he was to depart, fate intervened.

“In the summer, I was playing in a softball tournament and the head coach who I’d played for in high school . . . asked me what I was going to do and I told him,” Johnson recalled. “He said, `Well, why don’t you come coach for me?’ “

That took some work behind the scenes.

“I said I’d tried, but they don’t have any jobs. [Johnson’s high school coach] said go see the superintendent tomorrow, and that’s when I started to figure out how it all worked,” the Tech coach said.

“I went to see the superintendent the next day, and he said, `Paul, I’d love to hire you . . . but we just don’t have any teaching jobs.’ I’m think this is a waste of time, and I go back and talk to coach Aldridge. He said, `You go back tomorrow.’ “

So the runaround was in effect. Persistence, a trait will far more often than not will serve one well, paid off.

“I went back the next day, and [the super] said, `I don’t have any jobs, and I don’t know where I’m going to put you but we’re going to hire you. We’ll figure it out when schools starts.’ So my first job I was an in-school suspension teacher.” Some found humor in that information at Monday’s media gathering so cue the laugh track if you think it fits.

But it was a toehold for Johnson, and nearly every climb begins that way.

“I was fortunate that I went right out of college to calling plays,” the coach said. “Had I gone somewhere else, I probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”

Up next: Tech’s toehold on Thursday night.

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