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Veteran Georgia Tech line welcomes newcomer

ATLANTA - A.J. Smith suffered through some good-natured hazing Friday from his fellow Georgia Tech offensive linemen.

"A.J. Smith is a MONSTER!" cat-called Matt Rhodes as Smith did media interviews following the preseason practice opener.

"No, he's a BEAST," teased Andrew Gardner.

Smith might be both, but until the season starts in September, he will best be known as the newcomer on the Yellow Jackets' line. A right tackle, Smith lines up next to four veterans with at least two years of starting experience each.

So he understands, and expects, his teammates' abuse.

"It's all in fun," Smith said. "I've been working to get to this spot my whole life, so I can take it."

The Jackets need Smith to be the monster and beast his teammates claim him to be. He succeeds Mansfield Wrotto, a Brookwood grad picked in the fourth round of the NFL draft, at a position charged with protecting left-handed quarterback Taylor Bennett's blind side.

Meshing with a quartet so familiar with each other will be a challenge also.

"I know what the guys on either side of me are going to do before they do it," said center Kevin Tuminello of guards Nate McManus and Rhodes. "That chemistry is invaluable."

Smith mixed well with the veterans in spring drills, the reason why he entered preseason practice as the starter. Cord Howard was the favorite to replace Wrotto at the end of last season, but he sat out the spring following shoulder surgery.

Howard is healthy again, and freshman Nick Claytor, one of the stars of the February recruiting class, is a right tackle as well.

But to start over Smith, one of them "has to take that job" from him, head coach Chan Gailey said.

"I've got a bull's-eye on my back; I can't slip up," Smith said. "We have a lot of guys who want to compete for the job."

The standard is high. The Yellow Jackets ranked 34th nationally in sacks allowed last season. The offense also ranked among the top 35 in rushing a year ago, and Tashard Choice, the Atlantic Coast Conference rushing champ, returns.

Smith said the line's goal is to help Choice lead the country in rushing this fall.

"There really is no limit," Smith said. "We set our goal to be the best and that's what we're striving to do."

Yellow Jackets healthy as they report

Georgia Tech's "beach," where injured players go through conditioning drills while their teammates practice, had only one visitor on the opening day of practice.

Freshman Logan Walls, who broke his leg playing soccer this spring, spent Friday morning doing sit-ups and pedaling an exercise bike. The rest of the Jackets practiced, although defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive lineman Jacob Lonowski were limited in their activity.

Both underwent offseason surgeries and Gailey expects both to be at full strength in the coming weeks. Johnson's recovery is vital for Georgia Tech. He's a pass-rushing specialist who recorded five sacks last season.

"He has a lot of work to do conditioning-wise," Gailey said. "But there was no sense pushing him today. We'll push him as we get closer" to the opener.

Rough start for star receiver

James Johnson looked forward to showing off his new ride, a used Lexus sedan his family recently gave him, to his teammates this week.

But Johnson blew a tire 100 miles into his drive from his home near Orlando, Fla., to Atlanta on Thursday, and the spare "didn't match up" with the rest of his tires.

So Johnson arranged for the car to be towed back to Orlando, and he flew to Atlanta instead.

"What a way to start," Johnson said. "The plane ticket set me back $300."

The incident discouraged Johnson from bringing his car to Atlanta. He said he will rely on friends, the campus shuttles and his own two feet this semester and try to drive the car back again next semester.

And he added he doesn't consider the flat a bad omen for his senior season.

"No, it's just one of those things that can happen to anybody," said Johnson, the Jackets' leading returning receiver.

Situational role possible for Nesbitt

Freshman quarterback Josh Nesbitt wowed teammates with his speed and athleticism in summer practice.

Gailey said he and offensive coordinator John Bond will consider using Nesbitt in special situations this fall. His speed and rushing ability would provide a change of pace for pocket-passing starter Taylor Bennett.

Nesbitt threw for over 5,100 yards and ran for nearly 1,700 yards more his final two seasons at Greene County High School.