Under the direction of Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award winner George O’Leary, the Yellow Jackets promise to be explosive on offense and aggressive on defense.
The Yellow Jackets, who begin spring practice March 16, return more starters – nine on defense, seven on offense and both kickers – than any other team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Tech welcomes back 36 of its top 44 players on offense and defense.
“We have a chance to be a good football team, and I’m looking forward to the start of spring ball,” said O’Leary, who has posted a record of 45-28 in six seasons on the Flats.
“We have a number of experienced players back on offenseand defense, plus a lot of young players that we need to look at.The thing we need to do this spring is solidify the depth and keepthe competition level high on both sides of the ball.
“You hope some people elevate themselves, because I think that you never remain the same, you get better or worse.”
Competition will be fierce at many positions, including quarterback. Godsey, a senior from Tampa, Fla., is firmly entrenched as the starter after a spectacular junior season in which he passed for 2,906 yards and 23 touchdowns, but O’Leary is looking for someone to step forward as a dependable backup.
Godsey will miss spring practice after sustaining a knee injury in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and the silver lining to his injury is the opportunity for more repetitions for backup candidates Andy Hall, a sophomore, and Mark Logan, a redshirt freshman.
“George will be there mentally, but he won’t be ready physically until June,” said O’Leary. “That gives us an opportunity to work with the other three quarterbacks, Andy Hall, Mark Logan and A.J. Suggs, who is ineligible next year.
“I think we need to come out with a number two guy that we feel very comfortable with. They’ll have plenty of opportunity to show me a sense of urgency.”
O’Leary said he would not be afraid to turn to one of the three highly-regarded freshmen signal callers whom Tech signed: Damarius Bilbo of Moss Point, Miss., Dawan Landry of Ama, La., and Rahshan Johnson of Middleburg Heights, Ohio.
“I think someone definitely needs to win that backup job, or I’ll look at the freshmen,” said O’Leary. “We signed three very talented quarterbacks, and I think any one of them is capable of coming in and helping us right away as a backup.”
In addition to its starting quarterback, Tech returns virtually all of its key pass-catchers and ball-carriers, led by Campbell and tailback Joe Burns.
Campbell, a senior all-America candidate from Atlanta, caught 59 passes for 963 yards and 10 scores last fall. Also dangerous as a rusher and return specialist, he averaged 152.9 all-purpose yards per game and led the nation with an average of 18.9 yards per play.
Campbell, a two-time all-ACC selection, headlines a cast ofreceivers that also includes juniors Kerry Watkins and Will Gloverand sophomores Nate Curry and Jonathan Smith. That quartet combinedfor 143 receptions, 2,107 yards and 20 touchdowns and averaged 14.7yards per catch last fall.
Tech’s top four tight ends also return, including senior Russell Matvay, who was one of seven different Yellow Jackets with 20 or more catches last fall.
Tech is equally potent on the ground, led by Burns, who is coming off a season in which he rushed for 908 yards and 12 touchdowns while catching 26 passes for 242 yards.
Senior Sean Gregory, who has 1,208 career rushing yards, sophomore Jermaine Hatch and junior Sidney Ford give Tech excellent depth at tailback, with redshirt freshman Jimmy Dixon also throwing his hat in the ring.
“Anytime you have all your skill players back on offense, you have some competition,” said O’Leary. “Again, it will be a hard-working spring. We need to shake some of these guys loose from a depth standpoint to see if they’ll really be helping us next year.”
The heart of Tech’s attack last fall was an offensive line that led the ACC in fewest sacks allowed, but the Yellow Jackets must replace consensus first-team all-America tackle Chris Brown and all-ACC guard Brent Key, a pair of four-year starters and team leaders.
Senior center David Schmidgall (6-2, 275), an unsung but very dependable player, is Tech’s top returnee, and right tackle John Bennett (6-5, 290), a freshman all-America, and left guard Raymond Roberts-Blake (6-2, 273) also return to the starting five. Tech adds a pair of talented redshirt freshmen in tackles Leon Robinson (6-4, 290) and Jeremy Phillips (6-7, 295), as well as junior college transfer Garren Findlay (6-5, 290).
“It’s not rebuilding the offensive line, it’s replacing,”said O’Leary. “This is the most linemen we’ve had coming back. Wehave 16 offensive linemen in the spring.
“Chris Brown and Brent Key did an outstanding job, not just in offensive line play but also in leading the team and establishing the chemistry you want. Again, finding the right people to fill in with the right chemistry will be the key there, but I think that we will be able to leave the spring with a solid two-deep.”
While Tech’s offense remained explosive and productive last season, perhaps the hallmark of the 2000 Yellow Jackets was the tremendous improvement shown by the defense. That progress should be even more evident this season as Tech returns nine starters, led by the pass-rushing tandem of defensive ends Greg Gathers and Nick Rogers.
Gathers (6-1, 260) and Rogers (6-2, 250), all-ACC honorees who combined for 22 sacks, anchor a defense that ranked 12th in the nation against the run and 20th in scoring defense.
“I think we made strides last year as far as the defense was concerned,” said O’Leary, whose defensive unit is still youthful, with only three seniors starting.
“We’re not where we need to be yet, but I think we have a lot of young players who can run and enjoy hitting people. We have the makings of a good defense, and 15 solid days will be needed to get that chemistry right.”
Steady senior Merrix Watson (6-3, 285) returns at defensive tackle, but developing depth on the interior line will be an emphasis this spring.
Tech’s linebackers are young, fast and talented, with junior Recardo Wimbush (6-1, 218) and sophomores Daryl Smith (6-2, 225) and Ather Brown (6-3, 218) returning to the starting lineup and sophomores Keyaron Fox (6-3, 210) and Anthony Lawston (6-3, 220) pushing for playing time.
The top returnees in the secondary are safeties JeremyMuyres, a second-team all-ACC selection, and Chris Young, whileCory Collins, who started the second half of the season, alsoreturns.
At cornerback, junior Marvious Hester, sophomores Tony Hollings and Jonathan Cox, and Notre Dame transfer Albert Poree will compete for the starting berths.
The secondary and the defensive line are two areas where Tech may look at incoming freshmen for depth.
Tech’s special teams should again be among the nation’s best with accomplished specialists in placekicker Luke Manget and punter Dan Dyke and Campbell providing a dangerous return threat.
The Tech coaching staff features some new faces and some old faces in new places. After long-time offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen was named the head coach at ACC rival Maryland, O’Leary promoted Bill O’Brien from running backs coach to the coordinator position. Former Tech player Glenn Spencer joined the staff as running backs coach after three successful seasons as the head coach at West Georgia, and Geoff Collins, a graduate assistant the last two years, was elevated to full-time status as tight ends coach.
On Ted Roof’s defensive staff, Lance Thompson returned to the Flats as defensive ends coach and recruiting coordinator after two years at Alabama. Danny Crossman, in his third year at Tech, moved to defensive backs coach, while Peter McCarty came to Tech from Illinois to coach the defensive tackles.
So what does O’Leary hope to accomplish in these 15sessions of spring practice?
“I think that we still need to run the ball better, basically consistent running on first and second down, and we need to stop the run better,” he said. “I don’t think our coverage is where it needs to be yet, especially third down coverage. Those will be things we work on in the spring. Then, we’ll get into the speciality areas of two-minute and red zone, things that you always need to get better in.”
Tech’s 2001 schedule features five teams that played in bowl games and eight teams that posted winning records in 2000. The Yellow Jackets open the season against Syracuse in the Kickoff Classic, Aug. 26 in East Rutherford, N.J.
“I like to play an early game against a quality opponent to set a barometer for the next season and create a sense of urgency in spring ball and the off-season workouts.”
Tech’s early-season slate also features a Sept. 15 trip to Florida State, followed a week later by a home date with Clemson. November is highlighted by a home Thursday night clash with North Carolina on Nov. 1 and the season-ending battle with arch-rival Georgia Nov. 24 in Atlanta.