QUOTABLE – Chan Gailey
"We came out of the ballgame fairly healthy. We're now looking at the North Carolina game as another opening ballgame. They haven't played yet which is a little bit of a disadvantage for us. We don't know exactly what they're going to do with a new quarterback, tailback and defensive coordinator. So it's really going to be a challenge for our football team to be ready to go in this ballgame. Any time you have a new quarterback there are new things that he can do and new wrinkles they can work with. We're going to have to figure out what that is as quick as we can. Sometimes that takes a quarter, sometimes it's a half."
Two-year starter and former ACC Rookie of the Year Reggie Ball (5-11, 195, Jr.) returns. The strong-armed passer has performed very well at times, but can also be erratic. He ended last season with one of his best performances, earning MVP honors in Tech's bowl victory over Syracuse as he passed for 207 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another score in the Jackets' 51-14 win. Ball entered this season ranked sixth in Tech history in passing yards (4,143), sixth in touchdown passes (26) and fifth and total offense (4,859). Last week in the win at No.16 Auburn, Ball was 17-for-36 passing for 174 yards with an interception and a touchdown pass. Taylor Bennett (6-3, 213, Fr.*) and Kyle Manley (6-2, 200, Fr.*) are the backups, but will likely only see action in the case of an injury or if the game gets out of hand on the scoreboard.
One of the best tailbacks in the league is P.J. Daniels (5-10, 210, Sr.), who heads a talented and deep corps of ball carriers. Despite missing four games last year to injury, Daniels still managed to rush for 714 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the Jackets. That followed a sophomore season in which he led the conference with 1,447 yards.
"It was great to have P.J. Daniels healthy," Gailey said. "We are not the same when he's banged up. When he's healthy he runs the ball very well. The thing people don't realize about him is he is such a great pass protector. Sometimes that gets overlooked because he runs for 100 yards."
When Daniels was out last season, Chris Woods (5-11, 190, Sr.) and sophomore Rashaun Grant (5-10, 192, So.) filled in, although they, too, missed games with injuries. Grant, who was named ACC Rookie of the Week after gaining 122 yards in a win over N.C. State last season, finished with 425 yards; while Woods gained 299 yards on just 55 carries. In the 2005 opener, Daniels rushed for 111 yards on 23 carries and scored in the second quarter on a two-yard run. Tashard Choice (6-1, 205, So.) carried the ball four times for 15 yards, and Loyall Gause (5-9, 213, Fr.*) could also see action this week. Mike Cox (6-1, 245, So.) and Ajenavi Eziemefe (6-1, 240, Sr.) comprise the two-deep at fullback.
The spectacular Calvin Johnson (6-4, 225, So.) alone makes this position group strong. He caught four passes for 66 yards in the win over Auburn, including an impressive 35-yard touchdown reception. Meanwhile Tech spent most of the spring and summer trying to develop complementary pass catchers. Johnson set freshman records last season with 48 receptions for 837 yards and seven touchdowns, while running away with ACC Rookie of the Year honors. He should not only be one of the top offensive threats in the conference this year, but nationally as well. But the Jackets must replace its second and third leading receivers in Nate Curry and Levon Thomas. Starting opposite Johnson is Damarius Bilbo (6-3, 220, Sr.), an excellent athlete and former quarterback who has shown potential as a receiver. Pat Clark (5-11, 180, So.,) who had six catches for 36 yards last week, and James Johnson (6-0, 190, Fr.*) shined in offseason practice. Chris Dunlap (5-11, 200, Jr.) and Xavier McGuire (6-4, 215, Jr.) are also vying for playing time.
After the graduation of last year's starter Darius Williams, the most experienced returnee is Michael Matthews (6-4, 270, Jr.), who showed improvement last season. He has good size, but played primarily in two-tight end sets last year and only caught one pass. Another big one is George Cooper (6-5, 260, Jr.), who could also start. Neither caught a pass versus the Tigers. Also in the mix is Wayne Riles (6-4, 252, So.), who became eligible after transferring from Louisville.
Without question, the Jackets' biggest question mark early in the season is at offensive line, as three starters graduated – Kyle Wallace, Leon Robinson and Andy Tidwell-Neal. Even the top returnee Brad Honeycutt (6-4, 310, Sr.) has had to move to right tackle after starting the last two years at right guard. Opposite Honeycutt is Andrew Gardner (6-6, 280, Fr.*), who earned the starting berth at left tackle. He has added about 50 pounds since signing with Tech a year ago. The only lineman who returns to the position he started last fall is left guard Matt Rhodes (6-3, 280, So.), who entered the lineup midway through last season. At center, the Jackets turn to Kevin Tuminello (6-4, 285, So.), who must step in to replace the steady Tidwell-Neal. With Tuminello's return, Nate McManus (6-3, 290, So.) moves to right guard. The most experienced backup is Salih Besirevic (6-7, 295, Sr.), a versatile veteran that started two games last year.
Two-time all-conference end Eric Henderson (6-3, 265, Sr.) is one of the leaders of the defense. He was hampered by injuries last year and was limited to three sacks after collecting 11 the previous year. Still, he managed 12 tackles for loss. He enters his final season third in Tech history in career tackles for loss (51) and sixth in sacks (19). Adamm Oliver (6-4, 260, So.) and Darrell Robertson (6-5, 220, So.) compete for the starting left end spot and both will see plenty of action. Oliver started three games last season, making 27 stops and 5.5 tackles for loss. Robertson, who only played on special teams last year, is a little undersized but has excellent quickness. At tackle, Mansfield Wrotto (6-3, 310, Jr.) and Joe Anoai (6-3, 270, Jr.) return to their starting positions. Wrotto actually spent the spring at offensive guard, but came back to the defense where he's started in 21 of Tech's last 25 games. Darryl Richard (6-4, 278, So.) was expected to play a major role on the line, but will likely miss the entire season due to injury.
All-ACC middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson (6-4, 230, Sr.) returns to anchor the defense after an all-star junior campaign in which he was second in the league and 24th in the nation with 119 tackles. The Sporting News tabbed him the ACC's "Most Underrated Player." Returning at outside linebacker is KaMichael Hall (6-0, 225, Jr.), although he moves from WILL to SAM. An excellent pass rusher, Hall was second on the team with 4.5 sacks to go with 45 tackles. Phillip Wheeler (6-2, 225, So.) displayed big-play potential in the offseason. Gary Guyton (6-2, 230, So.) and Travis Chambers (5-11, 220, So.) should also push for playing time.
"This group is very athletic, strong, can change directions very well, and they have very good speed as a group," Gailey said. "We don't have the experience that you would like, but with some more games under their belts, that will change."
Tech, which intercepted four passes last week, returns starters at safety in Dawan Landry (6-2, 215, Sr.) and Chris Reis (6-1, 215, Sr.), who started at the SAM linebacker spot last fall, which keeps the Jackets strong despite the graduation of All-ACC free safety James Butler. Landry is a good athlete and a big hitter, and Reis should be fine after he reacquaints himself playing in the secondary. Veterans return at the corners as well in Dennis Davis (6-0, 185, Sr.) and Kenny Scott (6-2, 185, Jr.). Davis started the first three games last year before season-ending shoulder surgery and was granted a medical hardship and gained a fifth year of eligibility. Scott took over for Davis and recorded 43 tackles and one interception last season, which he returned for a touchdown against the Wolfpack.
Unlike a year ago, Tech has the luxury of experience at both punter and placekicker, including kicker Travis Bell (6-0, 210, So.), who was all-conference last season. Bell missed just two kicks all of last year, connecting on 15-of-17 field goals, including a school record 15 in a row, and 31-of-31 extra points. Last week against Auburn, Bell converted all three field goal attempts from 32, 21 and 28 yards out. Punter Ben Arndt (6-0, 180, Sr.) averaged 38.5 yards per punt last season. Clark returned punts last week and Woods returned kickoffs. Neither was able to break through the first line of coverage.