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Adult-Like Maturity

Sept. 3, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

You know me well enough – at least a good number of you do – to know that I don’t always stay dead on point, and so it will be for a moment here as I begin with an anecdote that on its surface will appear to have nothing to do with Georgia Tech’s season opener.

At my son’s middle school today, another father and I spoke briefly and passionately with each other about watching the last vestiges of boyhood slip away from our sons as they move toward adulthood. The changing voices, the leaner, more angular bodies, the changing priorities and – thankfully – a move toward intellectual and personal accountability.

Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly given the way my thought patterns run, it dawned on me later in the day that Tech’s football boyhood has disappeared completely.

This is a mature program now, not remotely in flux. This operation is in adulthood. There is only a little guesswork left, and that is standard for even the most established programs with roster turnover and the like.

Even head coach Paul Johnson has said recently that there is a night and day difference between the vibe around the Yellow Jackets entering today’s game against South Carolina State and the feelings and emotions he had heading into the season opener in 2008, his first on The Flats.

There are more players than not in the program now that Johnson and his staff recruited. The majority of players who will start today have played before, a few more redshirted their first year on campus and therefore have been around long enough to be drilled to do what is asked of them.

Johnson said that he knows now what to expect where in ’08 he had hardly a clue. That’s not a standard pronouncement, as Ivan Maisel’s excellent piece on ESPN.com suggested Friday. Many, likely most, and perhaps all coaches dread opening day in some fashion because there are unknowns about to be played out; starters who haven’t started before, players who haven’t played.

Yet as anyone who is likely to read this knows (it is a Tech-specific publication, after all), Johnson is rarely standard.

Don’t mistake this as a suggestion that Johnson is in his confidence bucking a trend among his peers to an absurd degree, like say former Georgia coach Jim Donnan’s offseason comment years ago that he’d waited the better part of a lifetime to steer a team with so much talent and experience as the upcoming edition only to have the Bulldogs bomb that season.

Johnson may one day have more talented teams. He likely had more top shelf talent last season.

There’s no way, however, that he had as much depth and personal accountability as the Jackets have this season.

That the Jackets are ranked in the mid-teens by most is a testament to what Johnson has done in amassing 20 wins and an ACC title in two seasons at Tech while deploying more players who he did not recruit than those he did. More, but not all, prognosticators have come to respect what Johnson has done and acknowledge that it’s no fluke.

The fact that Johnson has added two former head coaches to his staff in defensive coordinator Al Groh and defensive line coach Andy McCollum has aided perceptions, too. That they happen to labor on the side of the ball that has long been perceived as an Achilles’ heel for Johnson’s team is a testament to another form of acknowledgement from Johnson himself.

Prognosticators are acknowledging this as well.

When you can lose Jonathan Dwyer, Demaryius Thomas, Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett and Cord Howard to NFL training camps, starting guard Joseph Gilbert to graduation and a start-up program down the street from Georgia Tech, and super steady linebacker Sedric Griffin to graduation and yet be viewed to be roughly on par with where you were to start last season, you’ve grown up.

None of this means that Tech will match or surpass last year’s ACC championship season.

As Johnson himself has said more than once, the Jackets may be a better team yet not win as many games. Such are the vagaries of sport. Look at last year; what if Josh (that was his name then) Nesbitt doesn’t score that touchdown on fourth down in overtime against Wake Forest? What if Scott Blair doesn’t make all those field goals against Clemson – twice?

Hey, here’s vague: my son still leaves his socks (and worse) all over the place. Perfection is not always attainable no matter one’s maturity level.

There’s a certain wistfulness that goes with watching the boy morph away from innocence, but it’s probably not analogous to suggest that you might rue watching the Jackets grow up.

It’s a beautiful thing all the way around.

Yet reality is that while it is abundantly reasonable to expect success on a significant level now there comes with that more adult-like accountability. Expectation has been forged through results and method.

Random guesswork has been replaced by educated guesses, and for my two cents I think the Jackets are going to man up and be in the thick of it from start to finish this season.

OK, I’m coming with the camera today before the game to check on some very confident tailgaters, see if they’ve got their pre-game dialed up. I’ll write something for this evening’s special edition of Sting Daily. Plus, if you’re inclined to use your Star Trek-like hand-held communication devices and send thoughts to stingdaily@gmail.com during and (quickly) after the game today, perhaps we’ll publish some of the most interesting thoughts. Surely, you can do better than I.

P.S. Today’s entry was written with the Counting Crows, the Cure, U2, The Killers and Usher (one of my daughters invaded my iPod) on the headset. It all seemed to help. Whatcha think?

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