Position By Position

Feb. 26, 2007

QUARTERBACKS

0 Starters, 2 Lettermen Returning

With an outstanding performance in Georgia Tech’s bowl game, junior Taylor Bennett stamped himself as the frontrunner for the starting quarterback position, where Tech must replace four-year starter Reggie Ball.

Bennett was Ball’s backup the last two seasons, playing in nine games before he got the call for the Toyota Gator Bowl against 12th-ranked West Virginia. The 6-3, 215-pound lefthander responded to the challenge by completing 19 of 26 passes for 326 yards–a Tech record for bowl games–and three touchdowns in the Jackets’ 38-35 defeat.

“There’s adjustments to be made for Taylor because of differences in personnel,” said Gailey. “We’ve got some different people on the field, so some of the reads and the thought processes will be different. We’re changing the passing game a little bit – not drastically, but a little bit, so he’ll have a few things to learn.

“He’s got a lot of little things that he can get better at, but he’ll work hard to get that done.”

Bennett enters the spring as the No. 1 quarterback, but the Tech coaches will also be looking at talented freshmen Steven Threet and Byron Ingram.

“Taylor will get the majority of the reps, and then we’ll split things up with the remaining quarterbacks, with Steven Threet and Byron Ingram getting the majority,” said Gailey. “We don’t know much about those two yet, but they have great potential so we need to find out what they can do.”

Threet is a member of Tech’s 2007 recruiting class who enrolled this semester. He was rated among the nation’s top quarterback prospects. He has the build (6-5, 230 pounds) and arm of a classic drop-back passer, but he also possesses good athletic ability.

“It’s not easy to step in there as a true freshman, but the only way to get better is to be thrown out there and get reps,” said Gailey. “He’s going to fail a few times, but hopefully he’ll have some positive things happen and he’ll learn. He needs to see the difference in the speed of the game.”

Ingram, the son of former NFL receiver Brian Ingram, stands 6-5 and 195 pounds with a good arm and excellent athletic ability.

Also returning is junior Kyle Manley, who lettered as Tech’s holder in 2005. Calvin Booker, a walk-on who transferred from Auburn, also joins the program this spring.

RUNNING BACKS

2 Starters, 5 Lettermen Returning

Tech’s backfield returns intact with tailback Tashard Choice and fullback Mike Cox, each among the nation’s best at their respective positions.

Choice moved into the starting role last fall and promptly recorded one of the top rushing seasons in school history. With 1,473 yards (105.2 yards per game), he led the ACC and was named second-team all-conference.

The 6-1, 205-pound senior got stronger as the season went on, reaching the 100-yard mark in his last seven games and averaging 136 yards over the final six contests.

Choice has proven to be a workhorse–only four players in the nation had more carries last season–but the Jackets have a couple of options behind him in senior Rashaun Grant and sophomore Jamaal Evans.

Evans showed some promise in limited duty last fall, finishing as Tech’s third-leading rusher with 215 yards (5.2-yard average) and two touchdowns.

Grant is a versatile player who catches the ball well out of the backfield and has also been used as a slot receiver.

Rashaun Grant is the one who gives us a lot of flexibility because he can do a lot of things,” said Gailey. “We’re going to try to move him around and give him some different roles in the offense to see what he might be able to do.”

Whoever lines up at tailback has the luxury of running behind an outstanding blocker in Cox, a two-year starter at fullback and one of the keys to Tech’s running success even without carrying the ball.

“You can’t overstate the importance of Mike Cox to our offense,” said Gailey. “He can catch the ball, he can run routes, he can block, he can do so many things to help us move the football.”

Cox, however, will be sidelined this spring after offseason shoulder surgery. Tech lacks a proven player behind him, so redshirt freshmen Trevor Bray and Quincy Kelly will try to solidify the Jackets’ depth at fullback.

“It’s a great opportunity for guys like Trevor Bray and Quincy Kelly to try to show that they can contribute at that position,” said Gailey.

WIDE RECEIVERS

1 Starter, 3 Lettermen Returning

This position takes on a new look with all-everything wide receiver Calvin Johnson moving on to the National Football League.

While no one could “replace” Calvin Johnson, Tech does return talented junior James Johnson, who had 39 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last fall.

A key question for the Jackets is who else will step up at wide receiver.

“We’re going to find out who might rise to the top – Bay-Bay (Demaryius) Thomas, Greg Smith, Correy Earls, Andrew Smith,” said Gailey. “It will be an interesting process to see which of those guys step up. We like to use at least three wide receivers in our offense, so we’ve got to have more than just James Johnson on the field with one other guy. Several guys have to get ready to play for us.”

Greg Smith has the most experience – he caught seven passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns in limited action, while Andrew Smith has been used primarily as a punt returner. The two redshirt freshmen showed promise on the scout team last fall, especially Thomas, who has excellent size (6-3, 220) and skills.

TIGHT ENDS

0 Starter, 1 Letterman Returning

After graduating its top three tight ends, Tech does not anyone at this position who has ever caught a pass. Sophomore Colin Peek moves into the starting position after a redshirt year. The 6-6, 250-pounder showed promise in a reserve role the year before.

“We think Colin Peek proved himself as a freshman,” said Gailey. “He needs to get better, but he showed that he can play at this level.”

Behind Peek, the Jackets will look to redshirt freshman Austin Barrick and sophomore Brad Sellers, who moved from defensive end to tight end during bowl practices.

OFFENSIVE LINE

4 Starters, 8 Lettermen Returning

Not only does Tech return four starters on the offensive line, but the Jackets welcome back four linemen who have each started 26 or more games. That quartet helped the Jackets rank second in the ACC in rushing last fall while blocking for the league’s top ball-carrier, Tashard Choice.

Tech’s top returnee is left tackle Andrew Gardner, an excellent athlete who has grown into a 6-6, 298-pounder. The junior from Tyrone, Ga., earned honorable mention all-ACC recognition last fall after freshman all-America honors the previous year, and he looks to be one of the top tackles in the conference and nation this time around.

Also returning are guards Matt Rhodes, 6-3, 285, and Nate McManus, 6-3, 300, and center Kevin Tuminello, 6-4, 292, all seniors. Between them, those four have a combined 113 career starts.

Rhodes is the veteran of the group with 34 consecutive starts, while McManus, Tuminello and Gardner have each started every game the last two years.

The only open position on the offensive line is at right tackle, where Mansfield Wrotto graduated. The competition is expected to be between junior A.J. Smith and sophomore Cord Howard. However, Howard will miss spring practice after offseason shoulder surgery, so Smith will get plenty of work.

Top backups on the offensive line include sophomore Trey Dunmon, who can play guard or center and sophomore guard Dan Voss, as well as junior David Brown and sophomore Jason Hill. Junior Jacob Lonowski can also be a key contributor at guard and tackle, but he will miss spring practice recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery last fall.

“I feel better about our depth on the offensive line than any other year going into spring practice,” said Gailey.

DEFENSIVE LINE

3 Starters, 7 Lettermen Returning

The defensive line looks to be the deep-est position on the Georgia Tech defense, led by ends Adamm Oliver, Darrell Robertson and Michael Johnson and tackle Darryl Richard.

Oliver, 6-4, 270, is the veteran of the group with has 29 career starts. He earned second-team all-ACC honors last fall, when he was the Jackets’ fourth-leading tackler with 70 while ranking second on the team with 11 tackles for loss.

Robertson, 6-5, 240, steps into the starting lineup opposite Oliver after starting four games last fall, when his highlight was an interception returned for a touchdown against Duke.

Johnson, 6-7, 250, is a very talented pass rusher who had five sacks last fall. Though technically not a starter, he sees plenty of action on passing downs.

After lettering on special teams as a true freshman, Robert Hall will try to earn playing time at defensive end. Tech coaches will also look at talented true freshman Derrick Morgan, a 2007 signee who is enrolled this semester.

Tech’s top performer at defensive tackle is Richard, 6-4, 285, who returned to the lineup last fall after missing the 2005 season with a knee injury. The Academic All-ACC honoree contributed 20 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss.

Tech must replace a three-year starting defensive tackle Joe Anoai. Junior Vance Walker enters the spring in that spot, while junior Elris Anyaibe will also see action at tackle.

“Probably the strongest area of our football team is our defensive line, with guys who have played quite a few plays,” said Gailey.

“You can never have too many defensive linemen. We’ve got some great speed up front, and we’ve got some bigger bodies than we’ve had in the past. We’re looking forward to seeing how that all meshes together.”

LINEBACKERS

2 Starters, 7 Lettermen Returning

Tech returns two outstanding linebackers in seniors Philip Wheeler and Gary Guyton, but the Jackets have one vacancy to fill at outside linebacker.

“We have two returning linebackers who are very good players in Philip Wheeler and Gary Guyton,” said Gailey. “We’ve got to find out who’s going to fill that other spot, and we’ve got to find backups for all of those guys. Those are big question marks that we need to answer in spring practice.”

Wheeler returns at middle linebacker after an all-star season last fall, including second-team all-ACC honors and second-team all-America accolades from Rivals. He led Tech with nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss, along with 89 tackles.

Starting for the first time last fall, Guyton contributed eight tackles for loss, two sacks, and an interception, as well as a fumble return for a touchdown in Tech’s victory at 10th-ranked Virginia Tech.

Sophomore Shane Bowen is the frontrunner at the other outside linebacker spot after gaining some experience as a backup last fall. He could be pushed by talented redshirt freshman Anthony Barnes.

“That will be a good battle in spring practice,” said Gailey. “Shane Bowen will walk into spring with the first group. Anthony Barnes has a chance to be a very good special teams player because of his size and speed, and he’s got a chance to be a very good linebacker. He’s just never played there.”

Tech does need to develop depth at linebacker, which could come from juniors Taalib Tucker, Matt Braman and Travis Chambers, among others. Sophomore Sedric Griffin, who lettered last fall on special teams, is out for spring after he was injured in Tech’s bowl game. Another redshirt freshman, Osahon Tongo, is still recovering from the season-ending knee injury he suffered last August but should be ready for the fall.

SAFETIES

2 Starters, 6 Lettermen Returning

Tech returns both of its starting safeties, including first-team all-ACC honoree Jamal Lewis at strong safety and senior Djay Jones at free safety.

That duo combined for seven of Tech’s 13 interceptions last fall. Lewis was the Jackets’ third-leading tackler with 74 hits, plus 6.4 tackles for loss and three interceptions. Jones led Tech with four interceptions, along with 46 tackles.

Jones, however, will miss spring after offseason shoulder surgery.

“That’s going to be a mix-and-match proposition this spring,” said Gailey. “With Djay Jones out for the spring, we’ve got to see what are best combinations are.

“We’ve got a lot of experience back there; we’ve just got to put it to good use.”

Versatile senior Avery Roberson will work at free safety in Jones’ absence this spring. Roberson has played every position in the secondary but started seven games at cornerback last fall. He had 59 tackles.

Tech also welcomes back senior Joe Gaston, a projected starter at safety last spring before a season-ending knee injury. Sophomore Jake Blackwood also has experience as a backup.

“Joe was having a great spring a year ago before he got hurt, so we’re looking forward to good things from him,” said Gailey.

CORNERBACKS

1 Starter, 4 Lettermen Returning

With returning starter Avery Roberson working at safety this spring, junior Jahi Word-Daniels is the Jackets’ most experienced cornerback who started six games last fall, including the Toyota Gator Bowl. He had two interceptions and led Tech with 13 pass breakups.

Promising sophomore Laurence Marius will get a chance to earn a starting berth after gaining experience on special teams last season.

Senior Pat Clark will also be in the mix. The converted wide receiver played well at times last fall, including a key interception in the Jackets’ win over Miami. Junior backup Tony Clark has been a top special teams player.

SPECIALISTS

2 Starters, 4 Lettermen Returning

Georgia Tech has the luxury of returning starters at placekicker, punter, long-snapper and holder, led by all-America punter Durant Brooks.

Brooks, a strong-legged senior from Macon, Ga., is the top returning punter in the nation after averaging 45.52 yards per kick with a net of 40.66 that ranked second in the NCAA. He was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award while earning second-team all-America accolades.

Senior placekicker Travis Bell returns after hitting 12-of-18 field goals last fall. A three-year starter and former all-ACC selection, he ranks third in Tech history in career points by kicking with 38-of-56 field goals and 101-for-101 extra points for a total of 215 points.

Junior long-snapper Bret White also returns, while Brooks serves as the holder. Junior Mohamed Yahiaoui will battle for the kickoff duties.

The return jobs will be up for grabs, and those battles are likely to continue in the fall and could include incoming freshmen.

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