ATLANTA (Nov. 7) – Just like a pinch hitter who sits in the dugout, waiting for the chance to deliver a clutch hit, Sean Gregory bided his time as a backup in the Georgia Tech backfield.
While the 6-0, 211-pound sophomore came through in earlier “pinch-hitting” opportunities, now that he has ascended into a starting role, he is delivering home runs for the Yellow Jackets.
“The last couple of weeks have been an exciting time for me personally, to say the least,” says Gregory, who entered the season as Tech’s third-team tailback before season-ending injuries to Joe Burns and Phillip Rogers elevated his role.
“I hate it for Joe and Phillip, but injuries are part of football. To get a chance to play and to be able to capitalize on that opportunity and help my team is a great feeling.”
The 14th-ranked Yellow Jackets (6-2, 4-2 ACC) will need another strong effort from Gregory as they host fast-improving Clemson (5-4, 5-2 ACC) Saturday in a regionally televised game (Fox Sports Net South) at 12 noon at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field.
Coming into the season, Gregory would have been an unlikely choice as Tech’s leading rusher, but that’s exactly what he is after eight games. The Homewood, Ill., native has rushed for 585 yards on 102 attempts, an average of 5.7 yards per carry. His average of 73.1 yards per game ranks sixth in the ACC, and he also leads the Jackets with nine touchdowns.
Gregory is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games against NC State (117 yards) and Virginia (119 yards), the first Tech back to accomplish that feat since current Green Bay Packers star Dorsey Levens did so in 1993. Earlier this season, he had a career-high 150 yards rushing against Central Florida, meaning that he has topped the 100-yard mark in every game he has started.
“In the spring, I was actually a receiver and that didn’t go as well as we hoped it would,” says Gregory, who scored three touchdowns against the Cavaliers. “So I was low on the depth chart coming into the season. I knew I would get a chance to play some time, sooner or later. The Lord gave me patience. When I got my opportunity, I just capitalized. Since I started playing football, I always told myself, ‘Be ready when you get the chance.'”
Gregory took that philosophy to heart last season. Limited to special teams most of the season, he got his only chance to carry the ball in Tech’s lopsided win over Wake Forest. He promptly gained 80 yards, all on one drive as he carried the ball all the way down the field, capped by a two-yard touchdown run.
“I just run hard,” he continues. “I’m not the biggest guy, and I know there are a lot of areas I need to work on, so I attribute my success to hard running.”
Gregory admits that in Tech’s ultra-complex offensive scheme, the hardest thing for a running back is the protections.
“Running comes naturally for me, and receiving I’ve gotten a lot better at, but the protection is what I need to work on. In high school, they just hand you the ball and you go, but now I’m called upon to do a lot of other things. Coach [Bill] O’Brien has spent a lot of extra time with me and tries to simplify things.”
Even though he has reached the end zone nine times this season, Gregory says that scoring a touchdown is not necessarily his biggest thrill.
“The best feeling as a running back has got to be when you run somebody over, and they know they’ve been dominated,” he says. “I like it when I can hit somebody really hard. It’s one-on-one, and I know I’ve won the battle. That’s the best feeling for me.”
Even though the Tech offense features a number of upperclassmen, led by quarterback Joe Hamilton and a veteran offensive line, the sophomore Gregory has become the elder statesmen among Tech’s ball carriers. He is backed up by true freshmen Sidney Ford and Mike Kitchen and redshirt frosh Gordon Clinkscale. Just as Gregory has received support and encouragement from Burns and Rogers, he tries to do the same for his younger brethren.
“Joe and the O-line are pretty much all seniors, and during the game they do a great job of controlling the attitude of the offense,” says Gregory. “But in practice when I look around, it’s Sidney and Gordon and Kitch with me in the backfield, so I’m the veteran. Coach O’Brien lets me know that it’s time for me to step up and be a leader in the backfield. The rest of the offense is experienced, but collectively at running back, we’re real young.”
As a prep prospect at Homewood-Flossmoor High in suburban Chicago, Gregory seemed destined for a Big Ten address, but on his final recruiting visit, he fell in love with Georgia Tech and the city of Atlanta.
Three years later, Tech fans can be happy that Gregory chose to migrate South.
“He’s really done an excellent job of stepping up and taking that first slot,” says Tech head coach George O’Leary. “He’s doing what he needs to do to get the tough yards. I’m really happy with the way Sean is progressing.”