ATLANTA-After three days of workouts in shoulder pads and shorts, the Georgia Tech football team practiced in full gear for the first time Thursday, and head coach George O’Leary was pleased with the intensity.
“The contact was good,” said O’Leary, beginning his sixth season on the Flats. “During the inside run drill, they were getting after it pretty good. Overall, for the first day of hitting, it was a pretty good practice. It got hot out there, but most of the guys worked through it.”
O’Leary looks for improvement in a defense that returns 10 starters, including the top four tacklers from a year ago, three of whom were true freshmen. The Jackets’ top returning defender is junior strong safety Chris Young (Senoia, Ga.), who had 89 tackles, five pass breakups and one interception last fall.
“Normally the defense is ahead, and our should be ahead because they more guys returning,” said O’Leary, whose squad opens the season Aug. 27 at 10th-ranked Virginia Tech in the BCA Bowl. “You can see the confidence level over there. And that’s good for our offense to work against them. The quarterbacks are getting a good look as far as what they need to see.”
O’Leary cited improvement in the defensive line, where Tech returns veteran tackles Merrix Watson (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.), Guenter Kryszon (Clark, N.J.), Tony Robinson (Soperton, Ga.) and Berwin Echols (Atlanta, Ga.) as well as ends Greg Gathers (LaPlace, La.), Nick Rogers (East Point, Ga.) and Felipe Claybrooks (Decatur, Ga.). Gathers, a sophomore, is the top playmaker up front after leading the Jackets with seven sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He was third on the team with 71 tackles.
“The front four are more active,” said O’Leary. “I see more plays being made in the backfield. That’s a sign that you’re getting off blocks, which is the key to making plays at the line of scrimmage. I do think we’ve improved the strength level on defense and that’s obvious on the line of scrimmage.”
At linebacker, Tech welcomes back junior Matt Miller (Alpharetta, Ga.), a starter in 1998 before missing all of 1999 with a knee injury. Also returning is sophomore Recardo Wimbush (Blakely, Ga.), who was Tech’s top tackler last year with 91 hits.
“Matt has been in the huddle before and he brings chemistry,” said O’Leary. “I still see the younger linebackers improving. Daryl Smith has really improved and is working himself into the depth. We’ve got a couple more days of doubles coming up, and those will be real key practices as far as the depth chart is concerned.”
Smith, from Albany, Ga., is part of Tech’s trio of highly regarded freshmen linebackers, along with Hobie Holiday (Warner Robins, Ga.) and Keyaron Fox (Atlanta, Ga.)
O’Leary said that freshman quarterback Brandon Sumner (Daytona Beach, Fla.) has elected to transfer and will be given his release. Sumner returned home last week when his mother became ill.