Jackets Open Spring Football Friday

March 7, 2005

Spring Football Prospectus

SPRING PRACTICE DATES (Subject to Change)

March 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, 19, 29. April 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, 12, 14, 16

ATLANTA–Georgia Tech, which returns 17 starters from last year’s squad that earned Tech’s school-record eighth straight bowl game, opens spring football practice Friday, March 11 with a 4 p.m. workout at Rose Bowl Field.

Practice number two is scheduled for Saturday morning, and the Jackets will continue through March 19, then take a week off for spring break before resuming drills from March 29-April 16.

The Yellow Jackets, who crushed Syracuse, 51-14, in the Champs Sports Bowl, also posted an eighth consecutive winning season and an eighth straight year of at least seven victories. In fact, Georgia Tech is one of just eight schools in the nation to play in a bowl game each of the last eight years.

The Tech defense was outstanding last fall, ranking 12th in the nation by allowing just 297.9 yards per game, the best figure by a Rambling Wreck defense since 1991. The Jackets return 10 starters, led by all-ACC middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson and two-time all-conference defensive end Eric Henderson. Tech also welcomes back a pair of honorable mention all-ACC players in defensive end Travis Parker and safety Chris Reis, as well as two-year secondary starters Reuben Houston at cornerback and Dawan Landry at safety.

Offensively, the Jackets return former ACC rushing leader P.J. Daniels at tailback and sensational sophomore wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the 2004 ACC Rookie of the Year, as well as two-year starting signal-caller Reggie Ball. In addition to seeking more consistent play from Ball, the 2003 ACC Rookie of the Year, at quarterback, Tech must rebuild an offensive line that returns only two starters, led by senior Brad Honeycutt.

The Rambling Wreck special teams feature all-ACC placekicker Travis Bell.

QUARTERBACKS

1 Starter, 1 Letterman Returning

It seems odd that one of Georgia Tech’s biggest questions would be at a position where a two-year starter and former ACC Rookie of the Year returns, but junior Reggie Ball could be challenged this spring as Tech seeks more consistent play at the quarterback position. While starting every game the last two seasons, Ball has performed very well at times but has displayed enough erratic play to make this position a competition. His challengers will be a pair of redshirt freshmen in 6-3, 213-pound lefthander Taylor Bennett and 6-2, 200-pound Kyle Manley.

Reggie Ball starts the spring in the first spot, and the competition will be open to see if Taylor Bennett or Kyle Manley can do enough things well to put themselves in position to play next fall,” said Gailey.

“There’s a lot of plays yet to be run, this spring and preseason, to decide exactly how things stand at the quarterback position, but Reggie is the number one quarterback going into spring practice.”

Ball, 5-11, 195, ended the season with one of his best performances, earning Most Valuable Player honors in Tech’s bowl victory over Syracuse as he passed for 207 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another score in the Jackets’ 51-14 win. The Tech coaches want to see more of that Reggie Ball, rather than the one who threw 18 interceptions and completed just 49.7 percent of his passes. Still, Ball managed to pass for 2,147 yards and 16 touchdowns while rushing for 332 yards and two scores. He ranked third in the ACC in total offense with 206.6 yards per game

Ball enters his junior season ranked sixth in Tech history in career passing yards (4,143), sixth in touchdown passes (26) and fifth in total offense (4,859).

“Really it’s all on him,” said Gailey. “How good does he want to be and how consistent does he want to be?”

If Ball solidifies his starting position, developing the two freshmen will still be a majority priority for the Jackets. Bennett appears to be slightly further along after earning a spot on the travel squad last fall, even coming close to playing at midseason, but Manley also showed promise while directing the scout team.

RUNNING BACKS

1 Starter, 5 Lettermen Returning

Tailback is the deepest position on the offense, led by former all-conference runner P.J. Daniels, who was hampered by injuries last fall. The 5-10, 210-pounder missed four games but still managed to rush for 714 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the Jackets. That followed a sophomore season in which he led the ACC with 1,447 yards.

Daniels enters his senior season ranked fifth on Georgia Tech’s all-time rushing list and eighth among all returning players in the nation with 2,416 career yards. If he can stay healthy, he can contend for all-America honors next fall.

When Daniels was out last season, senior Chris Woods, 5-10, 190, and sophomore Rashaun Grant, 5-10, 192, filled in, although they, too, missed time with injuries. Grant, who was named ACC Rookie of the Week after gaining 122 in a win over NC State, finished with 425 yards, while Woods notched 299 yards on just 55 carries. Redshirt freshman Drew Gause adds depth, although he is playing for the Tech baseball team this spring.

“We’ve got some experience there, and we’ve got a little bit depth,” said Gailey. “The key for us is to stay healthy at tailback, which we were not able to do last year. I feel very good about where we are at tailback right now. Obviously Chris Woods and Rashaun Grant need to get stronger to be able to run the football between the tackles on a consistent basis.”

Tech’s backfield could get even deeper if Tashard Choice, a transfer from Oklahoma who enrolled in January, is granted a hardship waiver to play next season. However, his status likely will not be known until after spring practice.

At fullback, where Tech must replace two-year starter Jimmy Dixon, the job will likely be manned by sophomore Mike Cox and senior Ajenavi Eziemefe. Cox, 6-1, 248, gained some experience as a true freshman but only carried the ball four times. Eziemefe, 6-1, 240, has also played tailback and has 407 career rushing yards. He also caught a touchdown pass last fall. Redshirt freshman Justin Guadagni adds depth.

Jimmy Dixon was a great contributor, and I’m not sure that people realize how much he did for us,” said Gailey. “We’ll have to see how quickly a guy like Mike Cox can develop.

“Ace Eziemefe has been sort of a catch-all guy for us, playing some tailback and some fullback. He’s going to spend the majority of his time at fullback this spring, and we’ll see how he can develop in that position. He’s put on about 20 pounds and seems to have embraced the position.”

WIDE RECEIVERS

1 Starter, 4 Lettermen Returning

The presence of spectacular sophomore Calvin Johnson alone makes this position strong, and while the Yellow Jackets must develop other pass catchers to complement the talented Johnson, there is young talent available.

The 6-4, 225-pound Johnson set Tech freshman records with 48 receptions for 837 yards and seven touchdowns, earning first-team all-ACC honors while running away with the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He should be one of the top offensive threats in the conference this season, as well as one of the nation’s top receivers.

“The challenge for a good player who played well early, like Calvin, is to take it upon himself to get better and become an even more well-rounded player,” said Gailey. “Calvin is not a finished product by any means, and I think he will get better as he learns defenses, as he learns how to run routes a little better. Things like that will help him in the long run.”

But Tech must replace its second and third-leading receivers in Nate Curry and Levon Thomas. Expected to start opposite Johnson is senior Damarius Bilbo, 6-3, 225, an excellent athlete and former quarterback who is still developing as a wide receiver.

Damarius Bilbo is a guy that I have high hopes for,” said Gailey. “He has a lot of athletic talent. If he can come on and first be a consistent wide receiver, then he has a chance to be very good. But he has to become consistent before he can ever become great. If he’ll do that, he has a chance to be very good. He’s going to have every opportunity to become a good receiver this spring, and I’m excited about what he may be able to do.”

Beyond Johnson and Bilbo, Tech has very little experience. The Jackets will look to juniors Chris Dunlap and Xavier McGuire, who have played very sparingly the last two years, sophomore Pat Clark, who showed some promise in limited duty last fall, and talented redshirt freshman James Johnson.

“We have some young players, like James Johnson, Pat Clark, even Chris Dunlap, who all have a chance to produce and play for us next year,” said Gailey. “Xavier McGuire has been around here for a while and hasn’t done a lot but maybe this will be his year.”

TIGHT ENDS

0 Starters, 3 Lettermen Returning

Tight end is a position at which the Yellow Jackets lack a proven player following the graduation of last year’s starter, Darius Williams, another unsung contributor for the Tech offense. The most experienced returnee and the likely starter is junior Michael Matthews, who showed improvement last season, when he played primarily in two-tight end alignments. At 6-4 and 270 pounds, he has good size, but he has caught just one pass.

Also in the mix is 6-4, 252-pound sophomore Wayne Riles, who becomes eligible after transferring from Louisville.

Another tight end with good size is junior George Cooper, who stands 6-5 and 260 pounds. Senior walk-on Jay Reid (6-1, 250) adds depth, as does senior Gavin Tarquinio (6-3, 250), who is expected to take over as Tech’s long-snapper.

Michael Matthews is the one who has shown the most and done the best job so far,” said Gailey. “Wayne Riles and George Cooper also have a chance, but Wayne needs to stay healthy and George needs to be more consistent.”

OFFENSIVE LINE

2 Starters, 5 Lettermen Returning

The nature of the quarterback position means that it will receive the most scrutiny, but Gailey did not hesitate in stating that his biggest concern is rebuilding the Tech offensive line, which graduated three starters.

“If I had to say the number one priority going into spring practice, it would be to gain as much experience and cohesiveness with our offensive line as possible,” said Gailey. “That’s our biggest area of concern right now.

“There’s a lot of spots open and not very many guys with experience sitting there. Obviously the guys who have played have a leg up on everyone else, but those other guys are going to get a ton of reps in spring practice and we’ll see how it falls. I think we’re pretty athletic, but you worry about the lack of experience.”

Tech graduated tackles Kyle Wallace and Leon Robinson and center Andy Tidwell-Neal. Even the top returnee, senior Brad Honeycutt (6-4, 310), will change positions, working at right tackle this spring after starting the last two years at right guard.

“Brad has a lot of talent,” said Gailey. “He has quickness and strength. He will have to work on technique and consistency, but he can be a very good tackle.”

Opposite Honeycutt, redshirt freshmen Andrew Gardner will have an opportunity to earn the starting berth at left tackle. The 6-6, 280-pounder has added about 50 pounds since signing with the Jackets a year ago. His progress will be determined by how much strength he can gain.

“Right now, Andrew Garner has shown the most potential, so we’ll work him at that left tackle position and go from there,” Gailey said.

“I think you always are concerned about guys without experience. I don’t care if they’re freshmen or juniors, you’re worried about a guy who’s not been in the battle and you wonder how quickly he can pick up the speed and intensity of the game.”

Another spring experiment has 6-3, 310-pound junior Mansfield Wrotto, a starter at defensive tackle the last two years, moving to the offensive line, where he will work at right guard.

Mansfield Wrotto’s got a big challenge in front of him to move from defensive line to offensive line,” said Gailey. “That’s not easy. It’s a lot harder than people want to think, so it will be a challenge for him and for us an offense.

“He’s a powerful man. He was doing a great job on first down and second down for us on defense, but he was getting an average of 20-something plays a game, which is not enough for a big, strong guy who’s a good football player. Now he can play 60-70 snaps a game, and that helps our football team. Right now, it’s more of a team need, but down the road, I think this is his best spot.”

The only offensive lineman who returns to the position he started last fall is 6-3, 280-pound sophomore left guard Matt Rhodes, who entered the lineup midway through last season.

At center, Tech turns to sophomore Nate McManus, 6-3, 290, to replace the steady Tidwell-Neal. Sophomore Kevin Tuminello should also be a factor, but he will miss spring practice after ankle surgery in December.

After settling on a starting five, the development of capable backups at each position is another major priority. Tech’s most experienced backup is senior Salih Besirevic, 6-7, 290, a versatile veteran who has played both guard and tackle and actually started two games last fall. Junior Travis Kelly, 6-0, 280, has seen some limited game action at center and guard, but beyond those two, the Jackets will have to rely upon untested sophomores Eddy Parker, 6-4, 280, and LeShawn Newberry, 6-0, 300, another defensive line convert, and redshirt freshmen A.J. Smith, 6-7, 265, Jacob Lonowski, 6-2, 280, and Kieran Delaney, 6-4, 280, for depth.

DEFENSIVE LINE

4 Starters, 6 Lettermen Returning

Georgia Tech returns its defensive line virtually intact, led by all-ACC defensive ends Eric Henderson and Travis Parker. However, Mansfield Wrotto, a two-year starter at defensive tackles, moves this spring to offensive guard.

Henderson and Parker give the Jackets one of the top duos in the conference, if not the nation, at defensive end.

A two-time all-ACC honoree, Henderson was hampered by injuries last fall and was limited to three sacks after collecting 11 the previous year. Still, he managed 12 tackles for loss. He enters his final season third in Tech history in career tackles for loss (51) and sixth in sacks (19).

“Spring practice is going to be important for Eric, not necessarily for learning schemes, but for him it is to be consistent and stay healthy for the entire spring practice and to be able to push himself without getting hurt,” said Gailey. “If he can do that, it will help his mindset going into next season.”

Parker, 6-5, 260, is Tech’s most experienced player with 36 career starts, so it should not hurt him to miss spring practice following offseason shoulder surgery. The Jackets’ most consistent run-stopper on the front line, he had 34 tackles with six tackles for loss and two pass breakups last season.

Sophomores Adamm Oliver and Darrell Robertson should give the Jackets excellent depth at defensive end. Oliver, in particular, is a very capable backup who started three games last season and collected 27 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, earning Freshman All-ACC honors. Robertson, who only played special teams last year, is undersized at 6-5 and 220 pounds but has excellent quickness. Redshirt freshman Jon Morrison moves to defensive end this spring after playing tight end last fall.

Junior Joe Anoai returns at tackle, where the 6-3, 270-pounder used his quickness to record 11 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks a year ago.

Wrotto’s move to offense was made possible by the emergence Darryl Richard as a true freshman last season. The 6-4, 289-pounder had seven tackles for loss and four sacks in limited playing time and was tabbled to Sports Illustrated’s All-Bowl team after recording two sacks and a safety in Tech’s victory over Syracuse.

Behind Richard and Anoai, Tech has a pair of talented, but untested, players in redshirt freshmen David Brown, 6-3, 260, and Elris Anyaibe, 6-3, 265.

LINEBACKERS

2 Starters, 4 Lettermen Returning

All-ACC middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson returns to anchor the Tech defense after an all-star junior season in which he was second in the ACC and 24th in the nation in tackles.

Wilkinson, 6-4, 230, collected 119 tackles with 17 tackles for loss last fall, his first at middle linebacker after starting the previous year at defensive end.

“He’s certainly one of the best linebackers in the conference, and he could be one of the best in the country before it’s over,” said Gailey. “He is that kind of athlete and has learned the game that quickly.”

Returning at outside linebacker is junior KaMichael Hall, 6-0, 225, although he moves from the “will” to the “sam.” An excellent pass rusher, Hall was second on the team with 4.5 sacks, along with 45 tackles.

Also back is Chris Reis, who started at the “sam” linebacker spot last fall but returns to safety this spring. That opens an opportunity for sophomore Philip Wheeler, 6-2, 221, to earn a starting berth after a redshirt year last fall.

Sophomores Gary Guyton, 6-2, 230, and Travis Chambers, 5-11, 220, and redshirt freshman Eric Williams, 6-3, 210, will also push for playing time at linebacker.

SAFETIES

2 Starters, 4 Lettermen Returning

Returning starters Dawan Landry and Chris Reis make this position strong despite the graduation of two-time all-ACC free safety James Butler, although Reis will have to reacquaint himself with the secondary after playing linebacker last season.

A senior from Ama, La., the 6-2, 215-pound Landry is a very good athlete and a big hitter. The former quarterback has started the last two years at strong safety but now moves to Butler’s former free safety spot. Landry was Tech’s third-leading tackler last fall with 81 hits and has 174 career tackles and three interceptions.

Reis was an honorable mention all-ACC selection at outside linebacker, where he led Tech and ranked fifth in the ACC with eight sacks. After flourishing at linebacker despite his lack of size, the 6-1, 215-pounder moves back to his original position of strong safety. Reis is also a two-time Academic All-ACC selection.

“Chris is a smart player, and he knows our defense, but he doesn’t have a lot of experience with the deep coverages, so that will be his focus this spring.”

Junior Joe Gaston, 5-11, 190, a mainstay on Tech’s special teams, backs up Reis at strong safety, while sophomore Djay Jones, 6-1, 190, another key special teams contributor last fall, plays behind Landry at free safety. Junior Sam Williams, 5-11, 195, adds depth.

CORNERBACKS

2 Starters, 6 Lettermen Returning

Georgia Tech actually returns three starting players at cornerback as fifth-year senior Dennis Davis returns from injury to join senior Reuben Houston and junior Kenny Scott.

Tech’s top cornerback is Houston, 6-0, 190, a two-year starter with seven career interceptions. Last season, he led Tech with three picks, along with 48 tackles. He will be backed up by sophomore Jamal Lewis, 6-0, 185, who played on special teams as a freshman.

Davis, 6-0, 185, started the first three games last fall before season-ending shoulder surgery. He was granted a medical hardship to return for a fifth year.

Scott, 6-2, 185, took over for Davis, and collected 43 tackles and one interception, which he returned for a touchdown to seal Tech’s win at NC State.

“Having Dennis Davis back, and then having Jamal Lewis as a fourth corner, gives us some very good depth at that position and will enable us to do a lot more things,” said Gailey.

Junior Avery Roberson and sophomores Finesse Usher and Brian Fleuridor add depth.

SPECIALISTS

2 Starters, 3 Lettermen Returning

Georgia Tech enters the spring with the luxury of having three experienced kickers, including all-ACC placekicker Travis Bell, who was very effective as a freshman last fall.

“This time last year that was a big question mark,” said Gailey. “Travis Bell, of course, did a great job. Kyle Belcher did a fine job. Ben Arndt was not the most consistent, but he did a fine job considering where he started this time last year. I think it will be a good battle in spring practice between he and Kyle Belcher for the punting job.”

Bell missed just two kicks all season, connecting on 15-of-17 field goals, including a school-record 15 straight, and 31-of-31 extra points. He earned second-team all-conference honors as well as first-team freshman all-America honors.

Belcher, another sophomore, backs up Bell while handling kickoffs. He will also push for the punting job, competing with Arndt, who only averaged 38.5 yards per punt but had a solid net of 35.9.

Tech did graduate three-year long-snapper Andrew Economos, who will be replaced by senior tight end Gavin Tarquinio. Redshirt freshman quarterback Kyle Manley is expected to take over as holder.

The return jobs will be up for grabs with the Jackets looking at several players for punt returns and kickoff returns, including Reuben Houston, Pat Clark and James Johnson on punts, and Clark, Johnson, Kenny Scott, Chris Dunlap and Chris Woods on kickoffs.

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