ATLANTA (Mar. 15) – Georgia Tech opens spring practice with the daunting task of replacing Heisman Trophy runner-up Joe Hamilton at quarterback, but head coach George O’Leary would rather focus on the 16 starters and 34 letterwinners who are returning.
The Yellow Jackets will hold the first of 15 spring workouts Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Rose Bowl Field. Spring practice continues with workouts scheduled for each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday through April 12. The annual Springfest scrimmage is scheduled for Saturday, April 8 at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field.
Tech returns five starters on offense, including all-America candidates Kelly Campbell (Atlanta, Ga.) at flanker and Chris Brown (Augusta, Ga.) at tackle, and nine on defense, led by all-conference candidate Chris Young (Senoia, Ga.) at strong safety, plus both starting kickers.
“We’re returning quite a few players with experience, and I’m really looking forward to the spring,” said O’Leary as he embarks on his sixth season. “We’re finally getting to the point where we have some depth, and we’re going to have some quality competition at some positions, and I think that’s an extremely good situation to have.”
Nowhere will the competition be more heated, or more scrutinized, than under center, where four players-junior George Godsey (Tampa, Fla.), redshirt freshmen Andy Hall (Cheraw, S.C.) and Brian Camp (Dublin, Ohio) and sophomore Jermaine Crenshaw (Greenville, Ala.)-will vie for the position held the last four years by the most prolific offensive player in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
“Hopefully we’ll get someone that will come out and move the football, a guy who can make plays when they’re not there,” said O’Leary. “That’s what I’m looking for, the playmaker, because very rarely are there going to be times when everything is perfect. A quarterback has to be a guy who is innovative, can make plays and when the big play is there, take advantage of it.
“It’s tough to get four quarterbacks ready to play, so there will have to be many quality reps when they get them. We’re going to have to arrange practice so that the quarterbacks are constantly working, not just sitting around watching.”
Godsey is the only candidate who has taken a collegiate snap with a total of 32 passes in his career, including five-for-13 for 57 yards in six games last fall. Hall and Camp split time last season between the scout team and the varsity, while Crenshaw spent most of the season at flanker, where he caught three passes for 33 yards. He will be given a shot at his former position this spring, but should he not win the quarterback job, he will likely return to flanker.
“Experience is obviously in George Godsey’s favor, but the two freshmen, Brian Camp and Andy Hall, both have extremely strong arms. Then Jermaine Crenshaw is a talented athlete who can throw the ball. He has the athletic ability, now we just have to get the whole thing done as far as the ability to read coverage and make decisions.
“So all four quarterbacks will be given an opportunity, but when they get the opportunity they had better be productive.”
Whoever wins the quarterback derby will be surrounded by a talented cast of skill players, most notably Campbell but also a deep group of running backs, including the team’s leading rusher from each of the last two seasons in tailbacks Joe Burns (Thomasville, Ga.) and Sean Gregory (Homewood, Ill.), and powerful fullback Ed Wilder (Washington, Ga.).
“I think the receiver corps is a good one,” said O’Leary. “We lost Dez White, but everyone else is back, so we have some experience and leadership there, and I would expect that to be a strong point of the offense.”
Campbell enjoyed a breakout season in 1999 as he rewrote Tech’s receiving records, setting new season marks with 69 receptions for 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Similar experience and depth is available at running back with the return of Gregory and Burns, who missed most of the 1999 season with a broken ankle. Burns was Tech’s top rusher as a freshman in 1998 when he gained 474 yards on 98 carries and scored five touchdowns. He rushed for 87 yards and caught seven passes for 96 yards and one touchdown in two games last fall before his season was ended by a broken ankle against Florida State.
With the season-ending injuries to Burns and senior Phillip Rogers, Gregory emerged as Tech’s leading rusher. The 6-0, 211-pound junior ranked fifth in the ACC as he rushed for 837 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
Another key on offense will be rebuilding an offensive line that was one of the strengths of last year’s squad but returns just two starters, though both are all-star candidates in left tackle Chris Brown (Augusta, Ga.), a 6-6, 315-pound senior, and right guard Brent Key (Trussville, Ala.), a 6-4, 280-pound senior. Three-year starters and key cogs in Tech’s potent offense the last two years, Brown and Key enter the season with a total of 62 career starts.
O’Leary looks for improvement from a defensive unit that struggled in 1999 while starting three true freshmen. The defense graduated only two starters from last season, but the unit is still young, with only two seniors likely to start this fall.
“There’s no question that when you start three true freshmen, they are going to be much better players as sophomores,” said O’Leary. “With almost everyone back, the defense is a year older, and they’ve had a great off-season program. I think they’re going to be stronger and more active at the point of attack, and that will allow them to make more plays.”
The three freshmen who started last season, linebacker Recardo Wimbush (Blakely, Ga.), free safety Jeremy Muyres (Stone Mountain, Ga.) and defensive lineman Greg Gathers (LaPlace, La.), were three of Tech’s top four tacklers last season, and all three have all-star potential.
Tech’s top defensive returnee is strong safety Chris Young (Senoia, Ga.), a big hitter and a fiery competitor who was second on the team last year with 89 tackles and one interception. The 6-0, 201-pound junior made perhaps the most memorable play of the season with his fumble recovery against Georgia that prevented the potential winning score and allowed Tech to win in overtime.
Tech’s defensive line returns intact, led by Gathers, who moves inside to defensive tackle after starting every game of 1999 at defensive end. A second-team freshman all-America, the 6-1, 255-pound Gathers led the Jackets with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss, totalling 71 hits.
Tech’s linebacker play should be improved with the return of junior Matt Miller (Alpharetta, Ga.), who is healthy now after missing last season with a knee injury, and the addition of junior Cody Price (Tempe, Ariz.), a transfer from Arizona State.
In the secondary, Young and Muyres form a talented tandem of safeties, but Tech will look for more consistent play from cornerbacks Jamara Clark (Bradenton, Fla.) and Marvious Hester (Smyrna, Ga.), who shared time last fall.
Both starting kickers return in sophomore punter Dan Dyke (Winter Springs, Fla.), an Academic All-America who averaged 43.8 yards per punt, and sophomore placekicker Luke Manget (Conyers, Ga.), who set a Tech record for points by kicking with 86 points last season.
SPRING PRACTICE SCHEDULE
1 Sunday, March 19, 2:30 p.m. (Rose Bowl)2 Monday, March 20, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)3 Wednesday, March 22, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)4 Friday, March 24, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)5 Saturday, March 25, TBA6 Monday, March 27, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)7 Wednesday, March 29, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)8 Friday, March 31, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)9 Saturday, April 1, TBA10 Monday, April 3, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)11 Wednesday, April 5, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)12 Friday, April 7, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)13 Saturday, April 8, SPRINGFEST14 Monday, April 10, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)15 Wednesday, April 12, 4 p.m. (Rose Bowl)All Times, Dates & Locations Subject to Change