Letting The Cream Rise to the Top

Oct. 6, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Golf and football may not mix, but there’s some football coach in Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler and football coach Paul Johnson loves golf so let’s blend.

This is about both the distribution of playing time and competition, which frankly may be the one thing that Tech – the school – is more about than anything else. If you don’t compete in class on The Flats, after all, you’re gone.

The Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 13 in the nation entering Saturday’s football game against Maryland after entering the season with minimal outside expectation.

The golf team has gone the other way. I do not understand why a team that saw three of its five regular starters graduate was expected by some to be outstanding again right off the bat other than a tip of the hat to Heppler.

Tech has slipped to No. 22 (from No. 4) entering the Brickyard Collegiate in Macon. Some of that early ranking can be attributed to what was then a lack of real data for the Golfweek/Sagarin ratings, but still.

Heppler and Johnson can be perceived differently, but both believe to their core that competition is key. There are occasions where each coach might give the nod to a player based on a prior body of work as opposed to whatever he has done or failed to do recently, but these are not those times.

To that end, Heppler benched one of his returning starters when the season began, or rather let All-American James White play himself out of the lineup by way of a preseason qualifier. White’s back in the mix, and will be at the Brickyard this weekend.

Joining him will be senior William Miller who previously competed just twice in team competition. He will be in the lineup after winning Tech’s latest qualifier.

“When you have . . . instability, results are going to be all over the map until we develop, and we can develop that one or two ways: me just choosing or them fighting amongst themselves,” Heppler said. “At the end of the day, with 25 years of coaching, I believe [in] them fighting amongst themselves until stability is developed.”

The Tech offense is putting up astronomical numbers through five games, all wins, and new B-back David Sims seems to have done his part. Perhaps he doesn’t threaten a defense like predecessors Jonathan Dwyer and Anthony Allen, but the guy is averaging 6.7 yards per carry and is second on the team with 349 yards.

Yet this week Johnson and his staff threw open the B-back competition. Apparently, there are some things we mortals cannot see on the field that coaches can.

Also, true freshman guard Shaq Mason has pushed his way into a serious rotation with Will Jackson and even All-ACC performer Omoregie Uzzi, and the stock of tackles Phil Smith, Ray Beno and walk-on Tyler Kidney churns weekly.

“We might have different guys starting this week,” Johnson said. “Competition is good. If we had it at every position, we’d be better.”

A knee-jerk reactionary might look at the way Tevin Washington is playing quarterback (his uneven performance at N.C. State last weekend notwithstanding) and wonder if Johnson played a favorite early last season by sticking with Josh Nesbitt at quarterback.

Washington’s thrown the ball more consistently through five games (particularly the first four) than Josh probably ever did over a similar stretch, certainly better than Nesbitt did before he broke his leg last season at Virginia Tech. Then again, Tevin wasn’t any more effective as a passer over the remainder of the 2010 season than Josh had been.

On that score, the simple ruling is that Washington has simply improved dramatically while at the same time Tech’s pass protection is as solid as it has been in years, and receivers have stepped up as well.

Good luck arguing this: When the boss has a track record for not playing favorites, it sends the message that everybody has to earn their way. That’s good for those under trying to go up, and should serve as well to remind those on top that they’re not entitled to stay there simply because that’s where they’ve been.

Heppler didn’t make all of his seniors qualify every time out last season. There was a point where he held limited qualifiers for just a spot or two on the travel squad. He rewarded the upper classmen, White included, for consistency in competition. At times, he chose his first four golfers and let the rest of the team battle it out for the fifth spot.

Richy Werenski won that spot most of the time, but he – like White – was bounced from the lineup for this season’s opener.

The golfing Jackets are almost impossibly young. Their erratic performances in the first two tournaments reflected a lack of experience and to some degree Heppler’s two most experienced returning golfers perhaps taking a poor approach.

“I’m of the opinion that [Werenski] played too much golf this summer, and when he got here he was worn out,” Heppler said. “[Then] you’ve got guys who are here for the first time, and . . . guys who have been waiting a year or two. I just don’t think he was in the right place to go fight these guys for a spot.”

One could argue that in athletics there may be times when a coach is better advised to play a veteran even if he has struggled of late rather than go with a more inexperienced athlete even if that athlete has been solid in recent practices.

The idea here is that when the light comes on for real, the veteran will embrace the moment whether he practiced well or not while less experienced players might shrink in the moment.

A poor week of practice by Aaron Rodgers is not going to lead to a new quarterback as the Packers come to Atlanta this weekend.

That’s a coach’s call, and just one of the reasons Heppler and Johnson do what they do, and you and I don’t.

“My job as a coach is to get [players] to play the best they can play. It’s not to pat `em on the back and rah-rah them when they do something good,” Johnson said. “Having said that, there’s a line . . . how hard do you push? But that’s why we get paid; we’re supposed to know how hard you push.

“You do whatever it takes. You try to push the right buttons. The bottom line is it comes from the guys who compete.”

Obviously, a competitive nature is built largely from within with persistence as its foundation, and a mix of impatient patience and work ethic added in doses to vary depending on the individual and his circumstances.

“We’ve had some incredible late-career turnarounds because I think with what we do here . . . a guy never feels like it’s over until he’s done,” Heppler said. “Adam Cranford . . . watches all of his roommates for four years make All-American and win the NCAA (Troy Matteson in 2002).

“He had a horrible time being the sixth man on a team that was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 and it’s discouraging.”

Cranford stuck it out, and kept competing. He didn’t play in a single event for Tech as a freshman in 1999-’00, played in one as a sophomore and two as a junior. Then, as a senior he played in 10 of 12 events for a team that finished second in an NCAA regional and 11th in the NCAAs in ’02-`03.

As Heppler takes his third different lineup into Tech’s third tournament of the fall, he’s seen this before. He’s already had some players shrink in their moments with scores in line with mine or yours. Those same players have fired sub-par rounds, too.

The more they play – after earning the right – the more likely they are to play more consistently when the light is on.

At least that’s the theory.

“If you just start picking [players, as a coach], the door closes and those guys give up because there’s no reason to work,” Heppler said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have a late-career [surge] by William Miller or not, but he’s come back with some renewed effort and . . . we’ll let him try.

“We didn’t just pick him; he beat everyone. I have no idea what we’ll get, but I think it’s done the right way.”

This is a tough deal. I see why some fans want to know why a veteran is on the sideline sometimes with a much less experienced player in his place. But I get the coach’s mindset as well. That’s why, as Johnson suggested, coaches get the big bucks. Send thoughts to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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