July 26, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
We’re about a week out now as the curtain is nearly ready to rise on the 2011 college football season.
Amen! Has this been an offseason to loathe, or what?
Much has been written and reported already about the disappointment of last season at Georgia Tech, when the Yellow Jackets, “kind of rode on the coattails of 2009, the ACC championship,” according to fifth-year wide receiver Tyler Melton.
If you’re at all up on Tech football, you know the focus since Shreveport has been not only on getting stronger and faster, but getting right in the head. The first two parts, one might argue, is easier than the third.
Adjusting attitudes is no small task. So often you hear about “changing the culture” in a program, but that lingo usually comes up only at the same time as a coaching change.
Tech hasn’t changed head coaches, but Paul Johnson, his staff and his elder players have certainly gone about trying to change culture.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened last season: the Jackets weren’t as talented as in ’09, they suffered some key injuries, they couldn’t hang onto the football, and worse that all of that — they believed way too much in themselves.
There’s a difference between confidence and cockiness.
This year, Melton said several days ago, “we have a chip on our shoulder. There’s been a whole mind change . . . we can’t live off of someone else. We have to do everything ourselves. We don’t expect anyone to lay down for us.”
To boil down Tech’s psychological misfirings of 2010 down to the simplest, the Jackets’ mindset was borne of the notion – conscious or otherwise – that they had surpassed expectations in ’09.
Short of winning a national title, and perhaps not even then, is that possible to achieve?
Some of the teams that have had the greatest success over the past decade or so have a built-in ability to never surpass expectation because there is always more to accomplish, another goal that is greater.
This is a subtle thing, but critical. Once you reach what you perceive to be the top, are you likely to work as hard, or be as diligent in tending to details, as you were in the climb to get there?
Last season, Tech was not.
The word “expectation” is dangerous. The Jackets had lofty expectations last year; they saw themselves challenging to repeat their ACC title. Problem was, too many players expected that to happen and not enough had the right kind of work ethic – physically nor psychologically — to make it happen.
Being picked by media to finish fourth in the Coastal division ought not to embarrass the Jackets because it in no way portends a reality that is yet to be played out. Yet it had better tick Tech off because for all the hot air about not being concerned with what others think of you, we all care about perception because it is a reflection of what others see in our work, our approach, our mettle.
Save those inside the Tech football family and perhaps a scant few others, nobody has truly seen the Jackets work since they lost in the Liberty Bowl. If reading body language and listening to players talk matters, then the arrow is pointing up. Without predicting an over-under number on Tech wins, I have a strong hunch the Jackets will have far greater esprit de corps this fall, more verve, more cohesion. There will be a greater grasp not only of purpose but a much healthier respect for what it takes to execute that purpose. I’d bank on it.
As fifth-year defensive tackle Logan Walls said a couple days ago at the ACC football media gathering, “The biggest improvement is the communication. Last season, we weren’t communicating like we should have been . . . everyone wasn’t on the same page.”
Walls was speaking about defense, but he might as well have been talking about the Jackets as a unit.
Where a season ago there was a perceptible leadership void in the player ranks, present signs indicate improvement.
Fifth-year senior Jason Peters, linebacker Steven Sylvester and Walls are among those at the forefront on their side of the ball, and while Melton is not overly vocal on offense, he’s stepped into that role somewhat alongside fifth-year A-back Roddy Jones and others.
This team has some unusual seniority inasmuch as there are about half a dozen fifth-year seniors, and none of them are mere placeholders. They’re all likely to factor significantly into what Tech does, which lends them a greater pulpit from which to lead.
“Everyone is being pushed,” Melton said of the Jackets’ renewed interest in holding one another accountable. “Guys are getting better, paying attention, doing the little things.
“Rather than complaining about where they’re [playing], or `I’m not getting this,’ or, `I’m not getting that,’ it’s a mindset more like you take care of what you have to take care of and you’ll be taken care of.”
We’ll start learning soon enough, eh? Send some football thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll start taking care of the pig skinners in earnest soon..