April 9, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
You’d be surprised what scares Jamal Golden.
Standing all alone, ready to catch and return a punted or kicked-off ball with 11 guys manically heading in his direction hunting him doesn’t faze him.
Nor does the prospect of laying a lick on receivers, tight ends and backs that frequently out-size and out-weigh him — he stands 6-0, 193.
Not even having to overcome a shoulder injury that shelved him pretty much the final 11 games of the 2013 season could produce a bead of sweat on his head.
What did have the Wetumpka, Ala., native’s stomach tied in knots was a simple piece of paper. On that piece of paper was the NCAA’s granting him an extra year of eligibility following his medical hardship waiver in 2013, doubling the length of his remaining college career.
“[Georgia Tech’s Director of Sports Medicine Jay] Shoop and the medical staff told me it shouldn’t be any problem but it’s still in the back of your mind, `What if I don’t get this year back and then I’m down to only one year left after playing only three games my junior year?'” said Golden following Monday’s practice. “It was pretty scary, but that’s why it was such a big relief when I finally got final word on it. I’m not going to take it for granted and do what I can to make it a good experience.”
His return means many happy — and long — returns for the Yellow Jackets.
It’s something he did as well as anybody in the nation in 2012, when he was named ACC Special Teams Player of the Year and Honorable Mention All-ACC as a kick-returner, after being the only player in the country to finish in the top 10 in kickoff returns (28.35 yards per return, 10th) and punt returns (14.59 yards per return, 6th). He also became the first Yellow Jacket to return a kickoff for a touchdown since Dez White on Oct. 31, 1998, going 97 yards against BYU on Oct. 27, 2012.
One was not enough as Golden took a second kickoff to the house two weeks later at North Carolina, a 100-yarder, tying Drew Hill in 1978 vs. Georgia, and White for the longest return in school history. The two TDs tied Tech’s single-season record for kickoff returns for touchdowns, set by Hill in `78, and for a career, held by Hill (1975-78), White (’97-99), and Gary Lee (’83-86).
Having that kind of explosiveness back for 2014 AND 2015 makes special teams coach Dave Walkosky very happy.
“Just his presence changes the energy of the group,” said Walkosky. “They know he’s capable of making a big play. It’s good to have a guy back there that is going to go catch the football and make good decisions. That’s a great feeling for a special teams coach.
“He was definitely missed last year,” he added. “He makes such good decisions and knowing a guy that when he does touch the ball he has a chance to make something great happen, that’s a good feeling. On both punt and kick returns, you have a chance for something good to happen.”
It should be noted that both Golden and Walkosky had high praise for junior DeAndre Smelter, who stepped in once Golden went down.
“DeAndre did a great job,” said Golden. “Coming in, especially for his first year playing football in a while, it’s not easy to get back there and be under the pressure when you’ve got 11 guys coming down the field screaming at you, to catch the football. He handled the pressure well and I respect him for stepping up and taking part in the team in his first year playing.”
“DeAndre hadn’t played for a few years but him stepping in and the returns that he had — he had a couple of big ones against Miami — he had some great returns. He started taking some shots that he didn’t need to take but as a punt-returner he did a great job,” said Walkosky, who expressed excitement about the potential 1-2 return punch of Golden AND Smelter. “It’s awesome to have another guy like Jamal that can be explosive and make big plays.”
Golden admits that being allowed to continue to attend team meetings, work in the film room and offer advice to Smelter, kept him sane while recovering from what he called a “freak injury” to his shoulder. The injury occurred on the third play of the Sept. 21 game against North Carolina, while tackling 6-4, 245-pound tight end Eric Ebron.
“It really helped me out a lot because it was a mental blow when I got injured and found out that I had to have surgery,” he said. “The only bad thing was that I didn’t get to travel to away games. Other than that, I felt good to be able to stay around.”
Golden will be around plenty this year and has clearly mapped out his role.
“My job is to either score or put the offense in a great position to score,” he said. “Those are the two things I look to do when I get the ball.”
He also plans to play a part in getting the ball back on defense as starting free safety.
“I expect I’ll get a third-down stop and go back and return a punt and try to help my team out,” said Golden, who comes into the season with 32 career tackles, three career interceptions (all in 2012) with four pass break-ups. “Anything I need to do is what I’ll do.”
That includes making himself heard more on the field and in the locker room. With the secondary needing to replace starting corner Louis Young and strong safety Jemea Thomas, Golden expected to be called upon to be a leader. He’s already begun answering that call.
“I took over that role when I got hurt,” he said. “I made myself a promise that when I came back I would be a leader, more vocal. Leading by example is a big thing but I feel like I should be more vocal and that’s what I’m practicing this off-season.”
He likes the look of the unit, which is bolstered by the return of redshirt senior safety Isaiah Johnson and includes ’13 carryovers such as redshirt juniors Demond Smith and Domonique Noble at safety and junior D.J. White, redshirt junior Chris Milton, and redshirt sophomore Lynn Griffin on the corners.
“I feel like we have a bunch of veterans back and we have great game experience on the back end,” he said. “You have to be back there because we’re the ones that get the whole defense lined up to run around and play fast to make plays. So I feel like having veterans and experience returning on the back end is excellent.”
Golden has the opportunity to write two excellent final chapters to his college career, starting with a re-write of the record books for touchdown returns.
“You set a record your goal is try to beat it after that,” he said. “So that’s what I’m looking to do this season.”
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