The dawn of the new millennium signals the beginning of a new era for Georgia Tech football: Life After Joe.
But while the Yellow Jackets face the daunting task of replacing Heisman Trophy runner-up Joe Hamilton at quarterback, head coach George O’Leary would rather focus on who is returning, including 18 starters and 36 lettermen.
The Jackets return six starters on offense, including all-America candidates Kelly Campbell (Atlanta, Ga.) at flanker and Chris Brown (Augusta, Ga.) at tackle, and 10 on defense, led by all-conference candidate Chris Young (Senoia, Ga.) at strong safety, plus both starting kickers.
“The question that I am constantly being asked is, ‘Who is replacing Joe Hamilton?'” said O’Leary as he embarks on his sixth season on the Flats.
“The answer is ‘No one.’ I don’t care what school you are at, Joe Hamilton was a once-in-a-lifetime player, and you just don’t replace someone like that.
“The key is that the quarterback this year has a much better surrounding cast. From a depth standpoint, from an experience standpoint, and from a talent standpoint, we are so much further along than when Joe took over four years ago.
“We’re returning quite a few players with experience, and that extra year of maturity was very evident in the spring,” continued O’Leary. “We’re finally getting to the point where we have some depth, and we have some quality competition at some positions, and I think that’s an extremely good situation to have.”
Of course, no where was the competition been more heated, or more scrutinized, than under center.
Godsey Edges Hall for Starting Quarterback Job
Four players – junior George Godsey (Tampa, Fla.), redshirt freshmen Andy Hall (Cheraw, S.C.) and Brian Camp (Dublin, Ohio) and sophomore Jermaine Crenshaw (Greenville, Ala.) – competed in the spring to win the position played the last four years by the most prolific offensive player in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
Ultimately, experience was the deciding factor as Godsey, the only one who has taken a collegiate snap, edged Hall for the number one position, with Camp and Crenshaw bracketed together on the third team.
“After going through 15 days of spring practice, it was a very close race between George Godsey and Andy Hall,” said O’Leary. “It came down to who made fewer mistakes and better decisions. With that in mind, Godsey will go into the preseason as number one, with Hall second.
“But that quarterback position is just like any other position. The only thing we’re guaranteeing is the first snap. After that it’s up to you to keep the job and continue to grow and get better and make us a very productive offense.
“I’m looking for the playmaker because very rarely are there going to be times when everything is perfect. A quarterback has to be a guy who is innovative, can make plays and when the big play is there, take advantage of it.”
As Hamilton’s backup the last two years, Godsey has thrown a total of 32 passes in his career, including five-for-13 for 57 yards in six games last fall.
Hall and Camp split time last season between the scout team and the varsity, while Crenshaw spent most of the season at flanker, where he caught three passes for 33 yards. He could return to receiver, where his speed and athletic ability are assets.
“Andy Hall is a very talented quarterback with a very strong arm, very accurate, but there’s more to that position and he has to mature,” said O’Leary.
“Brian Camp also has a strong arm. I think the light-bulb has to go on as far as reading coverage and getting the right things done. Then Jermaine Crenshaw is a talented athlete who can throw the ball.
“It was expected this spring to see George make better decisions, especially in special situations such as two-minute and blitz pickup,” O’Leary continued. “Not that the other young quarterbacks didn’t get better, but I think experience was the deciding factor.
“With 15 days of spring practice, they each may have had their day, but the most consistent throughout the 15 days was George Godsey.
“Now we go into the preseason with a number one, two and three, and its the job of two and three to push number one. Competition will make everyone better.”
Speedster Campbell Leads Deep Receiver Corps
Whoever lines up at quarterback will be surrounded by a talented cast of skill players, most notably Campbell but also a deep group of running backs, including the team’s leading rusher from each of the last two seasons in tailbacks Joe Burns (Thomasville, Ga.) and Sean Gregory (Homewood, Ill.).
“I think the receiver corps is a good one,” said O’Leary. “We lost Dez White, but everyone else is back, so we have some experience and leadership there, and I would expect that to be a strong point of the offense.”
Campbell enjoyed a breakout season in 1999 as he rewrote Tech’s receiving records, setting new season marks with 69 receptions for 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Despite the loss of White, who elected to enter the NFL draft following a junior season in which he caught 44 passes for 860 yards and five scores, the Yellow Jackets still boast depth and speed at the wideout positions. In addition to Campbell, Tech returns sophomore Kerry Watkins (LaPlace, La.), the team’s third-leading receiver last fall with 33 receptions for 476 yards and six touchdowns, along with seniors Jon Muyres (Stone Mountain, Ga.), 9-105-1, and Brett Basquin (LaBelle, Fla.), 3-47-1, and sophomore Will Glover (Tampa, Fla.), 4-50-1. In all, Tech welcomes back eight of the top 10 pass catchers from last season while adding redshirt freshman Roderick Middleton (Bonneau, S.C.), 6-2, 182.
“Kelly had an outstanding season, and he showed he had the big play potential and the ability to make all the catches,” said O’Leary.
“In the receiver corps we have a lot of players returning who can make plays, said O’Leary.
“I thought Jon Muyres was the one who had the best spring. He’s healthy and back to his form of two years ago. He had a good spring, the best spring of the skilled athletes.”
Tech’s receivers will be coached by David Kelly, who joined the Tech staff last winter after four seasons at LSU.
Burns, Gregory Throw One-Two Punch At Tailback
Similar experience and depth is available at running back with the return of Gregory and Burns, who missed most of the 1999 season with a broken ankle.
Burns was Tech’s top rusher as a freshman in 1998, when he gained 474 yards on just 98 carries and scored five touchdowns. He rushed for 87 yards and caught seven passes for 96 yards and one touchdown in two games last fall before his season was ended by a broken ankle against Florida State.
“Joe Burns was really a key loss for the offense last fall,” said O’Leary. “We continued to move the ball, but Joe brings a certain toughness that is tough to replace.”
The season-ending injuries to Burns and then senior Phillip Rogers in the sixth game set the stage for Gregory, who emerged as Tech’s leading rusher. The 6-0, 211-pound junior ranked fifth in the ACC as he averaged 76.1 yards per game for a total of 837 yards, topping 100 yards rushing in each of his first four starts. He rushed for 13 touchdowns, the third-best season total in school history.
While Burns and Gregory give the Yellow Jackets a very effective one-two punch, there is depth behind those two in Gordon Clinkscale (Doraville, Ga.), Sidney Ford (Lindale, Ga.) and Mike Kitchen (Lebanon, Pa.), a trio of sophomores who saw limited action last fall.
Ford, 5-9, 205, rushed 11 times for 69 yards and one touchdown, but he missed almost all of spring drills with a cracked rib. Kitchen, a 5-9, 200-pounder who will also play fullback, gained 67 yards on 11 carries. Clinkscale, 5-10, 179, carried 15 times for 46 yards. A good open-field runner who enjoyed a productive spring, could also be used as a slot receiver.
“The running backs are all back with the exception of Phillip Rogers; so there are a lot of players who played last year, and Joe Burns coming back is just going to add to the chemistry of that backfield,” said O’Leary.
“Burns may have been a little ginger at first, but I think he showed that he will back 100 percent for the fall.”
Whoever lines up at tailback will run behind standout fullback Ed Wilder (Washington, Ga.), a 6-2, 255-pound senior who has been one of the unsung heroes of Tech’s high-powered offense. A powerful runner and solid receiver, Wilder carried the ball 15 times last year, gaining 100 yards, but his blocking and versatility are invaluable.
Wilder has been plagued by a chronic knee injury, so he did not participate in spring practice, but he will be ready for the fall.
“I know what Ed can do already, and I think getting him healthy and keeping him healthy is the number one priority,” said O’Leary.
While a healthy Wilder is one of the nation’s top fullbacks, a key for Tech is to develop depth behind him. Sophomore Gary Johnson (LaGrange, Ga.), 6-1, 245, moved from defense at midseason last fall and performed admirably as a blocking specialist but did not carry the ball. This season, Burns and Kitchen will also be able to line up at fullback, and the addition of redshirt freshman Jermaine Hatch (Baton Rouge, La.), 6-2, 195, should give Tech improved depth and flexibility.
“Gary Johnson will back up Ed, and then we have several guys that can play fullback,” said O’Leary. “Joe Burns has played there, Mike Kitchen can play there, and Jermaine Hatch can play there, so I’m happy with the flexibility that we have there, and the people back. It’s just a matter of getting the pegs in the right hole and making sure we have the right guys that can help us win.”
Tight end is another position at which Tech would like to improve its depth. Last year’s starter, Conrad Andrzejewski, has graduated, and junior Russell Matvay (Coram, N.Y.), who split time between fullback and tight end, takes over. Matvay, 6-4, 245, had just five receptions last year, but he started eight games as a freshman and caught 10 passes for 120 yards. Sophomores Will Heller (Dunwoody, Ga.) , 6-5, 241, and Brian Lee (Florence, Ala.), 6-5, 245, will also see action. An incoming freshman could make an impact here, including J.P. Foschi (Old Brookville, N.Y.), Darius Williams (Clarkston, Ga.), or possibly H-back/fullback Johnathan Jackson (Jacksonville, Fla.).
Brown, Key Anchor Front Line
Another key on offense will be re-building an offensive line that was one of the strengths of last year’s squad but returns just two starters.
Tech’s two returning starters on the line are both all-star candidates in left tackle Chris Brown (Augusta, Ga.), a 6-6, 315-pound senior, and right guard Brent Key (Trussville, Ala.), a 6-4, 290-pound senior. Both three-year starters and key cogs in Tech’s potent offense the last two years, Brown and Key enter the season with a total of 62 career starts to anchor the line.
The reconstruction project begins at center, where senior David Schmidgall (Clearwater, Fla.) steps in for graduated Noah King, whom he backed up last year. Schmidgall, Brown and Key are the only seniors on the offensive line.
“I’ve been very impressed with David Schmidgall and his work habits and the movement he gets, the direction he takes as far as being the center and the first one out of the huddle,” said O’Leary.
“You’re only as good as you are strong in the middle, and I think that’s what you have to start with.”
Behind Schmidgall, 6-2, 275, are 6-4, 270-pound redshirt freshman Hugh Reilly (Roswell, Ga.), who moved from the defensive line, and 6-2, 265-pound true freshman Matt Graviet (Lewes, Del.), a 2000 signee who enrolled for the spring semester after playing last fall at Navy Prep. Key also has experience at center.
“We have Brown and Key back, and I’ve been very happy with Schmidgall,” said O’Leary. “He’s done a very good job, and behind him I’ve been happy with the move of Hugh Reilly to center. That’s a tough position to learn, and he did a good job for the first time playing there.”
Redshirt freshmen John Bennett (Woodstock, Ga.), 6-5, 296, earned a starting berth at right tackle, and another redshirt freshman could start at left guard, where Clay Hartley (Bryceville, Fla.), 6-3, 285, and sophomore Raymond Roberts-Blake (Walthour-ville, Ga.), 6-2, 273, are listed as co-starters.
After Key at right guard are sophomore Ashley Henderson (Valdosta, Ga.), 6-3, 275, and sophomore Will Hardy (Conyers, Ga.), 6-4, 297, while defensive line convert Tim Brown (Columbia, S.C.), a 6-2, 284-pound sophomore, will play behind Hartley and Roberts-Blake at left guard.
Junior Jason Kemble (Canfield, Ohio), 6-4, 299, and sophomore Dustin Vaitekunas (Chapin, S.C.), Tech’s biggest player at 6-7, 314, back up at the tackles behind Brown and Bennett.
“I like the athletes we have on the offensive line, and now we have three months to get in the weight room and get them stronger,” said O’Leary. “The offensive line is probably the toughest position to play here early, and it takes a while to get them ready to go.”
Another addition to the offensive line is coach Mac McWhorter, who returned this year to the school at which he coached from 1980-86.
“I’ve been very impressed with Mac McWhorter and his working style with the players,” said O’Leary. “He’s been a very positive influence, and I’ve been happy with watching what some of the linemen have been doing in the weight room.”
Young Defense Looks To Be Much Improved
O’Leary looks for improve-ment from a defensive unit that struggled at times in 1999 while starting three true freshmen. The defense graduated only two starters from last season, but the unit is still young, with only one senior likely to start this fall.
“There’s no question that when you start three true freshmen, they are going to much better players as sophomores,” said O’Leary. “I think players make the most improvement from their freshmen to their sophomore years, and that year of maturity was evident in spring practice.
“With almost everyone back, the defense is year older, and I think they’re going to be stronger at the point of attack, more active at the point of attack, and that allow them to make more plays.”
The three freshmen who started last season, linebacker Recardo Wimbush (Blakely, Ga.), free safety Jeremy Muyres (Stone Mountain, Ga.) and defensive end Greg Gathers (LaPlace, La.), were three of the Jackets’ top four tacklers last season, and all three have all-star potential.
Tech’s top defensive returnee is strong safety Chris Young (Senoia, Ga.), a big hitter and a fiery competitor who was second on the team last year with 89 tackles and one interception. The 6-0, 201-pound junior made perhaps the most memorable play of the season with his fumble recovery against Georgia that prevented the potential winning score and allowed Tech to win the game in overtime.
“I think if you took a vote on the team for the toughest kid pound-for-pound, a leader emotionally, physically and mentally, it would be Chris Young,” said O’Leary. “He likes to play the game to the point sometimes that he forgets about assignments, but I think that he’s an extremely good football player who is a contact player, which makes him very important on the football team.”
Young, Muyres Lead Secondary
Young and Muyres give Tech a strong tandem at the safety positions.
Muyres, the younger brother of senior wideout Jon Muyres, started the final eight games at free safety and finished as the team’s fourth-leading tackler with 69 hits and three pass breakups. The 6-3, 205-pound sophomore came within one of the school record for tackles by a defensive back when he collected 18 against Wake Forest.
Behind Muyres at free safety is sophomore Cory Collins (Egg Harbor Township, N.J.), who started one game as a true freshman last fall. Collins, 5-11, 180, totalled 10 tackles on the season. He could also be used as Tech’s nickel back in passing situations.
Sophomore and Richard McCabe (St. Mary’s, Ga.) adds depth at safety.
Senior Jamara Clark (Bradenton, Fla.) and sophomore Marvious Hester (Smyrna, Ga.) return to start at the cornerback positions after sharing time last season. Both players have good skills but need to play more consistently.
Clark, one of only two senior starters on the defense, made 32 tackles in nine starts last fall and led the team with six pass breakups. Hester, also Tech’s punt return specialist, made 39 tackles and two interceptions, one of which helped the Jackets knock off Georgia in overtime. He averaged 11.1 yards per punt return but fumbled four times.
Senior Troy Tolbert (Augusta, Ga.) provides an experienced backup behind Hester, while sophomore Selwyn Scott (Boynton Beach, Fla.), who started last year’s season opener, plays behind Clark. Senior Shannon Ashmon (Montezuma, Ga.) and sophomore Kelley Rhino (Smyrna, Ga.), a pair of special teams standouts, could earn playing time, as could redshirt freshman Winfred Brown (Marietta, Ga.).
Any of Tech’s incoming freshmen defensive backs – Jonathan Cox (Chicago, Ill.), Tony Hollings (Jeffersonville, Ga.), or Sterling Green (Hyattsville, Md.) – could also challenge for playing time.
Wimbush, Miller Return At Linebacker
Last season Tech’s linebacker corps was decimated by injuries, losing starters Matt Miller (Alpharetta, Ga.) and Matt Uremovich to season-ending injuries. While Uremovich’s neck injury was career-ending, Miller returns after sitting out last season recovering from knee injury. The 6-4, 245-pound junior from Alpharetta, Ga., started 10 games in 1998 and made 65 tackles with four tackles for loss.
“When we lost Matt Miller and Matt Uremovich, I thought we lost great chemistry because they were guys who had been in the huddle before and made the big stops,” said O’Leary. “That’s where Matt Miller coming back is going to help from the standpoint of experience, chemistry and toughness. He loves playing the game, and that’s contagious, and I think that’s what we need more than anything else, is that enthusiasm from the love of playing the game, which Matt has.”
Miller will be backed up at middle linebacker by junior Ross Mitchell (Grayson, Ga.), 6-2, 235, who started the second half of last season at middle linebacker after Uremovich went down, making 53 tackles, four tackles for loss and one interception.
At outside linebacker, Wimbush, 6-1, 224, returns after earning third-team freshman all-America honors last season, when he became the first freshman ever to lead Tech in tackles. He collected 91 hits, four tackles for loss, one interception and two pass breakups.
One of the most positive developments of the spring was the emergence of a pair of redshirt freshmen linebackers, Ather Brown (Macon, Ga.) and Anthony Lawston (Baltimore, Md.).
Brown, 6-3, 225, is a tall, rangy player with good speed who earned a starting berth at outside linebacker.
“Ather Brown really had a nice spring,” said O’Leary. “I’ve been very impressed with him. He learns quickly, he moves very well and he has good size. He’s going to be a big kid. You like those 6-3, 230-pound linebackers who can run. He’s going to help us.”
Brown is backed up by another newcomer in sophomore Cody Price (Tempe, Ariz.), 6-2, 234, who is expected to make an impact after transferring from Arizona State.
Lawston, 6-3, 228, came to Tech as a wide receiver and played one game there last fall before an injury caused him to take a medical redshirt.
“Anthony Lawston really looks at home at linebacker, more so than he did at receiver,” said O’Leary. “He has some range and height and he can run.”
Tech also signed three outstanding linebackers who could earn playing time in Hobie Holiday of Warner Robins, Ga., Keyaron Fox of Atlanta, and Daryl Smith of Albany, Ga. Juniors Matthew Etheridge (Macon, Ga.) and Chris Koncul (Savannah, Ga.) and senior Brian Albanese (Alpharetta, Ga.) add depth at linebacker.
Freshman All-America Gathers Is Top Playmaker on D-Line
Tech’s defensive line returns intact, led by Gathers, who started every game at defensive end last fall.
A second-team freshman all-America, the 6-1, 265-pound Gathers led the Yellow Jackets with seven sacks and 11 other tackles for loss, totalling 71 hits. He also caused two fumbles, recovered one and led the team with 14 pressures.
Gathers experimented at defensive tackle in the spring and is likely to play there in certain packages in order to maximize his play-making ability.
Senior Felipe Claybrooks (Decatur, Ga.) also returns at defensive end after making 48 tackles and four sacks while starting five games last fall. Claybrooks, 6-4, 255, has big play potential with 15 career sacks but needs to play more consistently. He will be used as a pass rush specialist when Gathers moves inside.
Junior Nick Rogers (East Point, Ga.) takes over at the other defensive end. Last fall he bounced between defensive end and linebacker, collecting 36 tackles, six tackles for loss and an interception. One of the best athletes on the squad at 6-2, 250, his progress could be a key to improving Tech’s pass rush.
“At defensive end, obviously you notice Greg Gathers,” said O’Leary. “The move of Nick Rogers to defensive end has helped, and competition will bring out the best in Felipe Claybrooks. They’ve all steadily improved from last year as far as controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Sophomore Fred Wright (Lehigh Acres, Fla.), 6-4, 270, and linebacker convert Kelvin Hughley (Chattanooga, Tenn.), a 6-2, 245-pound sophomore who is one of the strongest players on the defense, could factor at defensive end.
Blue-collar juniors Merrix Watson (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.), 6-3, 285, and Guenter Kryszon (Clark, N.J.), 6-4, 280, return as the starting tackles.
Watson made 50 tackles last season with seven tackles for loss, while Kryszon contributed 31 stops and two tackles for loss. With 38 career starts between them, they provide experience at the position.
Seniors Tony Robinson (Soperton, Ga.), 6-4, 293, and Bryan Corhen (Albany, Ga.), 6-4, 287, and sophomore Berwin Echols (Atlanta, Ga.), 6-3, 296, should also see plenty of action on the inside. Senior Ira Claxton (Tallahassee, Fla.), 6-5, 255, adds depth.
“I don’t think we have a dominant player inside, but we have some solid, experienced players who can give us good downs,” said O’Leary. “The key is to keep rotating and keep fresh people on the field so they can go all out.”
Special Teams Return Starting Punter & Placekicker
Tech’s starting specialists – punter Dan Dyke (Winter Springs, Fla.) and placekicker Luke Manget (Conyers, Ga.) – return from a special teams unit that ranked 12th nationally in net punting and among the Top 30 in the nation in kickoff and punt returns.
Dyke, a 5-11, 185-pound sophomore and an Academic All-America in 1999, averaged 43.8 yards per punt with a net of 39.5 yards. Tech has excellent depth there in sophomore Chris Morehouse (Vernon, Conn.), a transfer from Albright College who led Division III in punting in 1998.
Manget, a 5-9, 176-pound sophomore, was one of the heroes of dramatic overtime wins over North Carolina (game-tying 36-yard field goal with five seconds left in regulation) and Georgia (winning 38-yard field goal in overtime). He led the Jackets in scoring last season with 86 points, a Tech season record for points by kicking, as he hit on 11-for-16 field goals and was perfect on 53 PAT. Sophomore Philip Newman (Marietta, Ga.) backs up Manget and can also punt.
Tech Opens With National Runner-Up Virginia Tech
Georgia Tech will tested early with two of its first three games against the participants in the national championship game, Virginia Tech and Florida State. Playing in a preseason game for the first time since 1991, Tech will take on national runner-up Virginia Tech on Aug. 27 in Blacksburg, Va., in the fourth annual Black Coaches Association Bowl.
“If we have the opportunity to play a 12th game, I’ve always been in favor of that,” said O’Leary. “It’s good exposure for our players, and when you have a fairly young team, it gives them a little more chance to get some experience that they need.
“Any time you can play a quality opponent like Virginia Tech, I think it can only aid our program and get us a little bit better. I think it sets the tone right away for what you need to get done.”
After the opener at Virginia Tech, the Jackets plays their next three games at home, including a date with the national champion Seminoles on Sept. 9. Also on the home slate is a Thursday night battle with Virginia, as well as dates with Central Florida, Navy, Wake Forest and Duke. The Rambling Wreck goes on the road for a Thursday night game at NC State and also travels to North Carolina, Clemson, Maryland and Georgia.