Top 50 Countdown: No. 42 Georgia Tech

Coach: Chan Gailey | Staff
In 2006: 9-5, won ACC Coastal Division, lost 38-35 to West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 8.
Key losses: WR Calvin Johnson, QB Reggie Ball, OT Mansfield Wrotto, DT Joe Anoai, LB KaMichael Hall, CB Kenny Scott.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: The bad news for Georgia Tech fans is that the Yellow Jackets must replace all-world receiver Calvin Johnson. The good news, at least in the eyes of some fans, is that the Jackets also must replace inconsistent quarterback Reggie Ball. Although Ball completed less than half his career pass attempts, the Jackets could learn this fall that they miss the former four-year starter's moxie and leadership skills. Georgia Tech also breaks in a new offensive coordinator and welcomes back Tashard Choice, who ended the 2006 season as one of the nation's hottest running backs.

GEORGIA TECH TOP 10
Tashard Choice rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his final seven games last year.

1. LB Philip Wheeler
2. RB Tashard Choice
3. OT Andrew Gardner
4. S Jamal Lewis
5. P Durant Brooks
6. DE Adamm Oliver
7. C Kevin Tuminello
8. DT Darryl Richard
9. LB Gary Guyton
10. QB Taylor Bennett
Best player: Choice. Clemson's dynamic duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller garner more attention, but Choice may have developed into the ACC's top running back by the end of the season. Choice rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his final seven games last year on his way to finishing with 1,473 yards, the second-highest total in school history. The Jackets will be counting on him more this season now that Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Calvin Johnson has headed to the NFL.

Most overrated: QB Taylor Bennett. Calling him overrated is a bit of a reach, but we also worry that Georgia Tech fans may be prematurely declaring Bennett a star based on one performance. Bennett sure looked impressive while throwing for 326 yards in a Gator Bowl loss to West Virginia, but let's make sure he's more than a one-game wonder before we assume Georgia Tech has upgraded itself at quarterback.

Most underrated: OT Andrew Gardner. Two years ago, Gardner started at left tackle and helped Georgia Tech allow the fewest sacks in the ACC. Last season he started at left tackle again and helped pave the way for Choice's breakthrough season. Gardner might be one of the top offensive tackles in the nation, yet he's never earned first-team all-ACC honors.

Must step up: WR James Johnson. Calvin Johnson's departure leaves James Johnson as the only Georgia Tech player who caught more than 12 passes last year. Nobody's expecting James Johnson to match Calvin's production from last year, but the Jackets would love to see him match his own 2006 total of seven touchdown catches now that he's going to be lining up against the other team's top cornerback.

Shoes to fill: The entire receiving corps: One person isn't going to be able to replace Calvin Johnson, who was responsible for 44 percent of Georgia Tech's catches and 51 percent of its receiving yards last season. The Jackets instead must hope James Johnson, Greg Smith and Demaryius Thomas all help pick up the slack.

Position battle: Wide receiver. James Johnson will definitely start at one receiving spot, but who will earn the other job? Candidates include Greg Smith, Andrew Smith, Thomas and D.J. Donley.

Impact newcomers: WRs Thomas and Donley. The loss of Calvin Johnson could allow at least one of these two receivers to play immediately. Thomas, a redshirt freshman, is a 6-foot-4 wideout who can give the Jackets the height that Johnson provided. Donley, a true freshman, is a former four-star prospect and one of the top players in Georgia Tech's most recent recruiting class.

New in 2007: John Bond arrived from Northern Illinois to take over as offensive coordinator for Patrick Nix, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Miami. Bond spent three seasons as Northern Illinois' offensive coordinator after a four-year stint as Army's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Bond will coach quarterbacks and call plays at Georgia Tech.

Grade the units:
QB: B-minus: This grade will go up in a hurry if Bennett proves that Gator Bowl performance was no fluke.
RB: A: The Jackets have one of the nation's best pro-style backfields with Choice running behind Mike Cox, a third-year starting fullback who has developed into a bruising blocker.
WR: C: Calvin Johnson's decision to enter the NFL instantly turned Georgia Tech's greatest strength into its biggest question.
OL: A-minus: Georgia Tech returns four offensive linemen who have started at least 26 games each.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: All-America linebacker Philip Wheeler leads a front seven that should rank among the most talented in the nation. The Jackets are known for their blitz packages and will have to put pressure on the quarterback early this season to take some pressure off their untested cornerbacks.

Best player: Wheeler: Wheeler earned Rivals.com second-team All-America honors last year while collecting nine sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 89 tackles. If he continues his rapid rate of improvement this fall, Wheeler could emerge as a legitimate Butkus Award candidate.

Georgia Tech Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 at Notre Dame
Sept. 8 Samford
Sept. 15 Boston College
Sept. 22 at Virginia
Sept. 29 Clemson
Oct. 6 at Maryland
Oct. 13 at Miami (Fla.)
Oct. 20 Army
Nov. 1 Virginia Tech
Nov. 10 at Duke
Nov. 17 North Carolina
Nov. 24 Georgia
Most overrated: None: Wheeler is really the only person who has made a name for himself because so much of the national credit for the Yellow Jackets' defensive strength has gone to defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's blitz-happy schemes. Tenuta is certainly a brilliant coach, but his players probably should receive more praise on a national scale.

Most underrated: S Jamal Lewis. It's tough to give this honor to a first-team all-conference player, but Georgia Tech's front seven on defense garners so much attention that Lewis occasionally slips under the radar. This may be the year Lewis makes sure the rest of the nation learns what the ACC already has discovered about him.

Must step up: CB Jahi Word-Daniels. He will need to have a big season as the Jackets try to overcome the loss of three-year starter Kenny Scott.

Shoes to fill: DT Vance Walker and LB Shane Bowen. Both players must replace three-year starters. Walker will fill in for Joe Anoai up front, and Bowen takes over for KaMichael Hall in the linebacking corps. Georgia Tech has enough experience elsewhere in the front seven that Walker and Bowen may be able to ease into their new roles.

Impact newcomer: LB Anthony Barnes: This redshirt freshman has made enough of an impression that he should earn immediate playing time and could even challenge for a starting job if Bowen struggles.

Position battle: Secondary. Avery Roberson started at cornerback last season, but he worked at free safety during spring practice while Djay Jones recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. The Jackets should have one open spot somewhere in the secondary depending on where Roberson ends up playing.

New in 2007: Georgia Tech's defensive coaching staff returns intact, and the Yellow Jackets bring back eight starters on defense. There isn't much new at all.

Grade the units:
DL: A-minus: Georgia Tech might not have any All-America candidates up front, but the Jackets sure have plenty of depth.
LB: B-plus: Philip Wheeler and Gary Guyton give the Jackets an All-American and an all-conference candidate. The loss of KaMichael Hall keeps Georgia Tech from getting an A.
DB: B-minus: Georgia Tech looks solid at safety, but cornerback could be a concern.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: Georgia Tech boasts one of the nation's top punters in Durant Brooks, who ranked fourth in the nation with an average of 45.5 yards per punt last year. Georgia Tech also has plenty of experience at kicker with the return of Travis Bell.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Georgia Tech returns 15 starters from a team that won the ACC Coastal Division title last year, but we're not betting on a second consecutive trip to the conference championship game. The loss of Calvin Johnson and the holes at cornerback give us reason for worry. A non-conference schedule that includes trips to Notre Dame and Georgia also offers cause for concern. We're guessing Georgia Tech will finish behind Virginia Tech and Miami in the Coastal Division race. That will likely earn an appearance in a second-tier bowl such as the MPC Computers Bowl.
Best player:P Durant Brooks: Ball State's Chris Miller is the only returning punter who had a better average than Brooks last year (Baylor's Dan Sepulveda and Auburn's Kody Bliss were seniors last season). Brooks finished second in the nation last year in net punting average (40.7).

Grade the units:
K: B-minus. Bell earned Freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com in 2004, but he has gone just 23-of-39 on field-goal attempts since then. He showed signs of bouncing back a year ago by making eight of his last nine tries. The senior is only 6-for-17 from at least 40 yards away over his last two seasons.
P: A. Brooks enters the season as a legitimate All-America candidate.
KR: C-minus. Georgia Tech ranked 11th out of 12 ACC teams in kickoff return average last year. Jamaal Evans led the team with 22.8 yards per return, though the Jackets declared the job up for grabs this spring.
PR: C-minus. Georgia Tech ranked 10th out of 12 ACC teams in punt return average a year ago.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Chan Gailey has posted a 37-27 record in five seasons as Georgia Tech's head coach. Former Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Patrick Nix left to direct the Miami offense, so the Jackets hired John Bond from Northern Illinois. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is considered one of the best in the business.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: C. Georgia Tech has beaten seven ranked teams six on the road during Gailey's five-year tenure. However, the Jackets also have suffered some one-sided losses (Clemson last year, the 2005 Emerald Bowl to Utah) during that time span. And Gailey still hasn't figured out how to beat Georgia.
Offense: B-minus. Last year, John Bond was offensive coordinator of a Northern Illinois team that finished second in the Mid-American Conference in total offense and had the nation's leading rusher (Garrett Wolfe). Can he have the same success in the ACC?
Defense: A-minus. Jon Tenuta's blitz packages are enough to give any offensive coordinator sleepless nights.

Special teams: C-plus. Georgia Tech punter Durant Brooks had an All-America season in Charles Kelly's first season as special teams coordinator, but the Jackets also ranked near the bottom of the ACC in kickoff and punt returns.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 40 and No. 39.


 

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