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Ready to Play?

Oct. 2, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– As we scratch our heads trying to figure out what is wrong with the footballers at Georgia Tech before tonight’s game at Wake Forest, I wonder if a consult with Al Groh might help clear the picture.

Through his personal grapevine, Tech’s defensive coordinator heard something this week about Titans quarterback Vince Young, and it may relate nicely to the Yellow Jackets’ predicament (2-2 after a dreadful showing against N.C. State) and the role of insufficient preparation and mindset in it.

Young was superb the opening week of the season, and then benched after three quarters in the Titans’ second game, a loss to the Steelers. Coach Jeff Fisher’s decision perked up the Nashville jabber jockeys (sports talker) and fans alike, but it was not quite a five-alarmer. Young, after all, had thrown two interceptions and fumbled twice by his exit.

There was, if Groh’s sources are correct, more to the story. And he is a man well connected.

“I heard that when the Titans pulled Vince Young it was because his . . . game was matching what they thought was not proper preparation,” Tech’s defensive coordinator said a few days ago. “After the game [last] Sunday, apparently a lot of their players were talking about how Vince really got after it.”

Young rallied from his benching to play quite well. He has since dodged questions about whether he missed meetings before the Steelers game.

This has nothing to do with Tech players and meetings. It has everything to do with how they react and prepare.

A few players have in my conversations with them this season alluded to uneven pace, focus and energy levels in practice and in games. Coach Paul Johnson has in various ways noted the same thing.

On his radio show Wednesday, Johnson revealed that he could tell his team was ready to play before it’s 30-24 win at North Carolina two weeks ago because the Jackets were jacked up, but that before the N.C. State game it was so quiet, “you could hear two rabbits pee on a cotton bale,” or something like that.

Who knew coach PJ could channel PJ O’Rourke?

My point, and I’ve made it before: Tech is uneven, and co-dependent on external forces. Too many Jackets need a fire lit under their rumps, and not enough are lighting matches themselves.

“Usually, the more challenged a team or player feels, the more intense the focus of preparation is,” Groh said. “Sometimes, clearly if the challenge isn’t there or it is improperly perceived, then maybe some players don’t prepare the way they ought to.”

The jury remains out on whether these Jackets have more depth than last season, but available evidence leaves that theory standing on sand for now. They don’t have the superstars they had last season at the top of the roster, but who in the ACC does? Nobody.

Yet the most important missing ingredient, I am convinced, is conscience. The Jackets’ collective soul has been a fleeting apparition. It needs to be recovered and harnessed.

My idea this week to talk to each captain, Brad Jefferson and Joshua Nesbitt, and ask not what is wrong but what can be done to correct it did not go especially well.

To be blunt, these are not young men of many words. Turns out, that is not their leadership style, which is fine by Johnson because he is quick to dismiss the clichéd notion that rah-rah leadership is the right kind anyway.

His take: “Don’t tell me, show me.”

In this regard, he has what he wants.

His senior quarterback believes he’s best able to help his team play better by, “just going out and doing my job and depending on other guys to do theirs,” Nesbitt said. “I feel like we’ve said enough. We feel like if you talk too much people don’t really trust you or believe in you. If you’re going out and doing your job, you can talk a little bit but don’t talk too much, just go do your job and people will follow you.”

Jefferson-fish tailed away from my questions on the topic, and sailed into murky waters relating to the importance of Tech’s defense communicating better. That’s critical, too. The Jackets reacted poorly last week to N.C. State’s no-huddle offense, busting assignments left and right after failing to effectively communicate with one another on the field.

Al Groh’s taken too much heat for Tech’s uneven defensive performances. These Jackets are not over-blessed with talent on that side of the ball, but not so under-staffed nor under-schemed that allowing 527 total yards of offense is explainable.

The offense has put up yardage numbers, but doesn’t pass the eye test. Nesbitt has been poor as a passer, and erratic as a decision maker.

This too, relates somewhat to the Jackets’ state of mind.

They not only have to know what they’re supposed to do, but believe in it. That process took an enormous hit last week when All-ACC center Sean Bedford went down on the sixth play. He was replaced by Ray Beno, who made his college debut, and former walk-on Zach Krish because backup center Jay Finch was out with a bum hamstring.

Johnson downplayed it after the game, and so did Beno, but the line calls typically made by the center are hugely important for the operation of the O-line and the offense. HUGELY.

When you hear even a hint of doubt in Nesbitt’s voice, something’s up.

“I have a lot of confidence in myself. It’s just that when . . . the coaches tell you one thing and sometimes you go out on the field and you’re indecisive about it for that split-second, then the whole play is messed up. I’ve got to stay dialed in . . . because if you go out there and be indecisive you don’t know whether I’m going to give it or run it and the ball might end up on the ground.”

Bedford’s back, and that’s a beautiful thing.

But where will be the Jackets’ soul? That will be most important.

Johnson’s been banging on the word, “urgency” this week, and with good reason. His team needs to play – and practice first – with a heaping sense of it.

“You got to care enough to know your assignments. It’s got to come from within the team,” the head coach said. “You always want to play [again after a loss] because you feel like crap. I was embarrassed Saturday. I hope some of them were. I’m not used to that.”

If everybody on both sides of the ball and on special teams shows up with Bedford’s diligent approach and attention to detail, Tech will roll by about 42-20.

“I think we’re putting a much bigger emphasis on being accountable for your assignment,” he said. “It’s a matter of taking responsibility for your job and just getting it done. I think there’s been more than enough put up in the way of excuses, and I think now it’s just time for us to take control of it and excel.”

On that count, Jefferson has something to add: “We definitely love the challenge. A lot of people are doubting us, and we’re ready to prove them wrong.”

We’ll see.

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