Sept. 8, 2004
by Simit Shah
ATLANTA–How much difference does a year make? Just ask Reggie Ball.
This time last year, the Stone Mountain native had assumed the starting quarterback role after stepping on campus just three weeks earlier. His season was filled with numerous highlights, culminating with the ACC Rookie of the Year award. However, there were just as many bumps in the road, especially off the field, for the true freshman, including a bold, ill-advised prediction.
A year later, it seems like Ball has aged 10 years. He’s well aware of the pitfalls of being a starting college quarterback and talks more like an old pro rather than the sophomore he is.
Ball and the Yellow Jackets open their ACC schedule Saturday at No. 18 Clemson in a nationally televised (ABC-TV, split national) at 8 p.m. at Clemson Memorial Stadium.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “Can I change any of that? No, but I can make sure not make those same mistakes again. It was tough sometimes, but that’s part of life. I have to take that and help some of the younger guys on the team.”
The coaching staff realizes the value of those lessons, and they are hoping that Ball will be able to share that knowledge with freshmen like wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
“That’s where Reggie can really help,” explained offensive coordinator Patrick Nix. “Reggie’s been through all that last year, and he can show Calvin and some of the other guys how to handle things, especially off the field.”
“I talked to Calvin, especially during the summer,” said Ball. “I’ll be there for all the freshmen, because I just went through all that.”
On the field, Ball has also matured. He spent most of the offseason working on his footwork and arm angle. His decision-making has also improved, thanks to his familiarity with the offense.
“There’s no doubt he’s gotten better,” observed Nix. “Just the knowledge of the offense and defense, and he’s been able to put all that together. There’s no doubt that a year’s worth of experience is very evident. It’s good for him and good for us.”
That experience was on display in the season opener against Samford. In an efficient performance, he connected on 14-of-21 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns. A sign of his maturity, Ball chose to speak at length about his lone interception, rather than his scoring passes, in the post-game press conference.
Ball is also benefiting from the talent around him. Running back P.J. Daniels, who led the ACC in rushing last season, leads a formidable running attack that should alleviate the stress on the passing game.
“You look at winning teams, and they all can run the ball,” Ball noted. “So when you have a great running back, you know you’re going to win some games. That takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback and the passing game.”
The receiving corps is coping with the graduation of Jonathan Smith, who caught nearly 40 percent of Ball’s completions last fall. Seniors Nate Curry and Levon Thomas anchor this year’s unit, while Damarius Bilbo (6-3, 225) and Johnson (6-4, 225) provide impressive size and speed.
“A quarterback always wants big targets, and those two fit the description,” Ball said. “They’ll make a lot of plays this year.”
Ball leads a Georgia Tech offense that is looking to be more consistent than it was in 2003. The unit struggled at times, especially early in the season. There were 41 and 52-point outbursts against UNC and Tulsa, respectively, but Tech scored 17 or fewer points in eight games.
“We’re trying to open it up this year,” said Ball, who threw for a Tech freshman record 1,996 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. “We have experience at key positions, and we know what we need to do. We can just focus on executing and progressing every day.”
While Ball has plenty of confidence in his teammates, he’s drawing his inspiration from another source–the Georgia Tech basketball team.
“What they did was amazing,” he said. “They really fought the odds and believed in themselves. It was fun to see how they came together and got the success and recognition they deserved. Our team can be like that, with everyone not thinking we’re going to be that good. There’s no reason that we can’t do something special.”