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#STINGDAILY: Time to Play, Not Just Talk

Aug. 2, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– Their cheeks red, their brows wet and their sites set higher, Georgia Tech players are back to work bearing the general look of a unit that aspires to separate itself from the more recent past and reconnect with times just a little further back.

The first day of “fall” football practice always brings optimism, and today’s Fan Day will serve as a multiplier as it begins on Callaway Plaza at 3 p.m. with an autograph/photograph session beginning at 4. Check this map for more info.

Head coach Paul Johnson loves this time of year because, well, it’s time to play football again rather than just talk about it.

The business of seeing what the Yellow Jackets have is ever-invigorating, even if it’s not much like the old days when players were in full pads and cracking from Day One, and usually practicing twice right off the bat.

“It’s always good to get back out there,” Johnson said after the first fall practice. “Guys came back in really good condition; you have to give [director of player development John] Sisk and his staff a lot of credit … It was a good start for us.”

For the first few days of practice, the Jackets – like all college teams nowadays – work in helmets sans shoulder pads. It’s worth remembering that it’s hard to draw conclusions beyond conditioning when, as Johnson said, everybody’s “going against air.”

There are injury issues to be addressed, but that’s nothing new. More importantly, a few Jackets sound ready to improve upon last season.

Senior B-back David Sims has a little edge about him.

“I think part of the reason I’ve always had good fall camps is because I love playing football. I know team-wise [quarterback] Vad [Lee] wants to prove that he can take over for Tevin [Washington] and do some things, and I’m sure Justin [Thomas] feels the same way.

“As a team, we have more to prove than last year. We ended up winning our bowl game for the first time in a long time, but the main thing is we want to build off that. We want to prove that going to the ACC Championship Game wasn’t a fluke.”

It’s nice to see and hear Fred Holton. The redshirt junior safety from Thomasville did not come to The Flats to be a spectator, but his past two seasons have been scuttled by buzzard’s luck.

First, after playing in all 13 games as a freshman in 2010, his ’11 season was swamped by an Achilles injury. Last season was stolen by an odd, difficult-to-figure injury to another tendon in the same foot.

Holton sure didn’t sound like a guy who’d been down on his luck.

The history, technology and society major is ready for serious work. He said days of discouragement are gone.

“I feel like that aspect of it is just love for the game. I grew up tough,” he said. “I know I can’t give up. I have people who I have to support, depending on me to get to the next level and do what I need to do in school to provide for them.”

Big Play Ray Beno, he of the electric 9-yard first down reception, was smiling as usual. He started 13 games last season at left tackle, and another on the right flank. There he was Thursday, though, in the middle of everything – at center.

Projected starter Jay Finch continues to mend from off-season shoulder surgery, and Freddie Burden was lost in spring practice to a season-ending injury. Then, on Wednesday, Caitlin Alford told the head coach he’d lost his love for the game.

So, Beno – who’s played center before – moved in with a grin.

“It’s almost like my only job is to focus on football,” said the recent graduate (business administration) who has declared another major in economics. “Until Jay gets back, [center is] where I’ll be. I’m kind of used to what’s going on.

“We have Will [Jackson] at left tackle, Trey Braun at left guard, me at center, Shaq [Mason] at right guard and Bryan Chamberlain at right tackle. Not much has shuffled on the first O-line [from spring].”

That’s not entirely accurate. Morgan Bailey, who started seven games last season, is out. Johnson said he may miss six weeks, although nobody asked about his ailment.

Also, senior safety Isaiah Johnson was limited Thursday after off-season knee surgery, and senior A-back Robbie Godhigh is sidelined by a broken hand. The head coach said Godhigh ought to be back in the mix in a week or so.

“It’s all on me. Physically and mentally I’m getting there. Right now, it’s a little sore,” said Isaiah Johnson, who happens to play among the deepest part of this team – the secondary. “It’s going to be like that.”

The head coach seemed to be still saddened by the Alford news, particularly combined with the Bailey development.

“He told me he was just tired of playing. Truth be told, I think he’s tired of school,” Paul Johnson said of Alford. “It happens sometimes. I tried to encourage him to come back and finish school because he’s so close.”

There wasn’t much time spent on sorrow. The Jackets are out to play more like they did in 2008-’09, when there were more good times. There are 18 returning seniors – the most Johnson’s had since the Jackets had 18 in his first season of ’08.

“It’s always good to have a large senior class,” the head coach said. “It means you’ve got some guys who’ve played a lot of football, which is a good thing.”

Eight starters are back on defense, seven on offense, and Ted Roof is a new (old) defensive coordinator tasked with addressing the Jackets’ greatest near-past problem.

Beno seems to feel something special coming.

“Every year we’re out to prove something, and we have just a little more hype with Vad coming in and having Justin out there. I think that’s added a little bit to us,” he said. “With the experience we have coming back there’s a little more excitement than in previous years.”

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