NCAA Football Preview - Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
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From The Sports Network By Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Yellow Jackets in year two of the Chan Gailey Era, fought through several hardships to post the team's seventh straight winning season and subsequent postseason berth. Gailey worked magic in his first season in Atlanta, overcoming injuries galore. Last year, academics were the culprit, as numerous players missed suiting up, including star running back Tony Hollings, who opted for the NFL instead. Things did not look good for the Yellow Jackets early on, as the team lost three of its first four games of the year. However, Tech proved its mettle against Florida State in Tallahassee, taking the Seminoles to the wire, but falling 14-13. The team did string together four wins in a row in the middle of the campaign, highlighted by big wins over NC State (29-21) and Maryland (7-3). However, a slow start was matched by a horrendous finish to the regular season, as the Yellow Jackets dropped three of their last four, including an embarrassing whipping at Duke (41-17). At 6-6, Tech went to the Humanitarian Bowl, where Gailey's troops routed Tulsa, 52-10. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: Tech was a young team last year on offense, but that youth will now serve the team well, with seven starters returning to the mix. It will be sophomore QB Reggie Ball's team to run this season, as the ACC Freshman Player of the Year in 2003, is set for a big season. Last year, the youngster completed just over 50 percent of his passes, for almost 2,000 yards (1,996 yards) and 10 TDs. His top target Jonathan Smith (78 receptions last year) is gone, but seniors Nate Curry (37 receptions, for 426 yards and three TDs) and Levon Thomas (10 catches, for 101 yards and one TD) will try to fill the void, as will huge freshman Calvin Johnson (6-4, 215), who could emerge as the team's go-to-guy early on. The ground game averaged just over 160 yards per game last season and that number should increase this year, with tailback P.J. Daniels returning for his junior campaign. Last year, Daniels rushed for an ACC-best 1,447 yards and 10 TDs, averaging just over five yards per carry. While he will be the focal point of the running game, teams can't overlook Ball's contributions on the ground. Ball rushed for 384 yards last year and scored three times. The offensive line returns three of five starters, but the two departed players were All-Conference, in Hugh Reilly (1st-Team) and Nat Dorsey (2nd-Team). Senior Leon Robinson will be back in as a starter at guard and the 6-4, 320-pounder may have something to prove after getting just one start last season. Joining him will be fellow 300-pounders in center Andy Tidwell-Neal (6-4, 315), guard Brad Honeycutt (6-4, 308) and tackle Kyle Wallace (6-6, 300). DEFENSE: Last season's defensive unit was spearheaded by the extraordinary play of linebackers Keyaron Fox and Daryl Smith. Both tackling machines have moved on, along with their combined 284 tackles and seven sacks. Still, the cupboard is far from bare, especially with First-Team All-ACC safety James Butler returning. The 6-3, 210-pound veteran is coming off a huge junior season, where he compiled 119 tackles, six TFLs and five interceptions. Joining him in the secondary are juniors Dawan Landry (strong safety) and Reuben Houston (cornerback). The active duo combined for 155 stops last year, and five more picks. Up front junior Eric Henderson will lead the way. Last season as a sophomore, Henderson was unstoppable, earning First-Team All-ACC honors, after leading the conference in sacks with 11. He also set a school- record with 24 TFLs. After just two seasons, Henderson has amassed 16 sacks in just 26 games. Fellow end Travis Parker (40 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 13 TFLs) is another player that likes to get up field and make things happen, while a lot is expected of sophomore tackle Mansfield Wrotto (6-3, 310), who earned Freshman All-American honors a year ago. The linebacking corps may take a step back this year in terms of athletic prowess, but junior middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson (47 tackles, four sacks, eight TFLs) will do his best to stem the tide. SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game will be an interesting thing to behold this season, as Tech will go with sophomore David Jordan to replace the departing Dan Burnett. Jordan split the KO duties a year ago and does have a strong leg with a 52-yarder being his longest in high school. Senior Andy Thomson will once again handle the punting chores, but his 39.8 ypp average was nothing to write home about in 2003. OUTLOOK: The ACC has taken on some new members this season and it just so happens that Tech will see both of them in Atlanta. That may not be enough of an advantage however, as Miami and Virginia Tech have stacked teams ready to make an immediate impact in their new conference. The non-conference slate will most likely produce at least two victories (Samford and Connecticut), with the final non-league tilt being the season-finale against arch-rival Georgia. Tech does avoid conference bully Florida State this year, but has some difficult road games in league play coming at Clemson, at Maryland, at North Carolina and at NC State. The home slate includes the Hurricanes and Hokies, with Duke and Virginia rounding out the schedule. This is a more experienced team that Gailey will have at his control this year, but the win total may not reflect it.