Aug. 2, 2001
ATLANTA – In the fall of 1999, current Georgia Tech junior Greg Gathers arrived on campus and did something very few people are able to in college football today, start every game as a true freshman. He quickly emerged as one of the leaders of a young and inexperienced defensive unit that overcame the struggles of 1999 to become one of the most highly regarded defenses in the nation entering the 2001 season.
When practice began in early August of 1999, much like it will for the Yellow Jackets later this week, new Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof took a chance that three true freshmen could be mainstays in Tech’s defensive lineup for the upcoming season, including the opening game against Navy.
Gathers, a native of LaPlace, La., was one of those three freshmen. He developed from an untested rookie in 1999, into one of the ACC’s top pass rushers as a sophomore last season. Gathers will once again be joined in the starting lineup by classmates Recardo Wimbush and Jeremy Muyres when the 2001 season kicks off on Aug. 26 against Syracuse in the Kickoff Classic at East Rutherford, N.J. The trio will report to campus on Aug. 3 and begin practice for the upcoming campaign on Aug. 4 with two-a-day workouts.
Prior to the start of practice, Gathers understands that he and his classmates will now be expected to be leaders of Tech’s revamped defensive unit while still continuing to learn and mature as players, a process that began in earnest in early August of 1999.
“Our first year we were all playing as true freshmen right out of high school,” said Gathers. “You’re going to struggle on defense when you start three or four true freshmen, because we were still learning the system out of high school.”
The Yellow Jacket defense was much maligned in 1999, as it allowed opponents an average of 30.3 points and 413.8 yards of total offense per game, both totals which ranked eighth in the ACC statistics. Despite some defensive struggles with such a young group of players in key positions, Tech posted an 8-4 record and earned a trip to the Gator Bowl. For Gathers, the learning curve was not as steep as some would expect, as he earned freshman All-America honors and led Tech in sacks (7) and tackles for loss (18). Joining Gathers among Tech’s tackle leaders were classmates Wimbush and Muyres, as Wimbush led the team with 91 stops and Muyres was fourth with 69 total tackles.
After being thrown into the fire as a rookie in 1999, Gathers and his teammates rebounded in 2000 to lead a Tech defensive unit that was often praised as a key component in the Jackets’ 9-2 regular season mark and a trip to the Peach Bowl. The Jackets finished second in the league and 12th nationally in rushing defense (94.5 ypg) and were second in the league in scoring defense (19.0 ppg). Gathers continued his strong play and led Tech in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (20) for the second-straight year. He feels that the 2000 season was a direct result of being put to the test as a true freshman in 1999.
“Going into last season we all had a year under our belts and had matured, so I think that carried over onto the field,” said Gathers, who is on the preseason watch list for the Rotary Lombardi Award, which honors the top collegiate lineman or linebacker. “We were able to play faster last year because of studying the offense, watching game film and reading the scouting reports. I think that all of that will help us this year to be an even better defense.”
With the vast improvement of the defense from 1999 to 2000 and the return of much of that defensive lineup, expectations on The Flats for the 2001 season have been raised considerably. Despite this, Gathers feels that this Yellow Jacket team will be better equipped to handle those pressures than it may been in the past.
“Everybody expects us to do something this year,” said Gathers. “That is unlike past years when everything we did was a surprise. Last year no one expected us to be 9-2, but this year everyone expects the team to be better. There are a lot of expectations, but nothing that I don’t think we can handle.”
The confidence that Gathers has in his and his teammates’ ability to handle the pressures of being projected among the nation’s elite teams for 2001 comes from a lesson that he feels the team learned at the end of last season. The lesson can be summed up by the adage “that’s why they play the games,” and for Tech the teacher was none other than LSU in a 28-14 Peach Bowl loss.
“People will be gunning for us this year,” said Gathers. “We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game every week. I think that’s one of the things that we learned from the Peach Bowl when we lost to LSU. Now we know that we are human and we can lose on any given day when we don’t bring our best game. We’re not going to sneak up on anyone this year.”
For Greg Gathers and his fellow true freshman defensive starters, the past two seasons at Georgia Tech have been ones of learning and maturing. After gaining a wealth of experience in that time, Gathers and his mates look to take the next step in the learning process and move from being the pupil to being the teacher.