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Tech finds new spot in ACC hierarchy

PINEHURST, N.C. - So much is different about Georgia Tech heading into the 2007 football season.

New quarterback.

New offense.

New star players.

And a new place in the Atlantic Coast Conference hierarchy.

The Yellow Jackets will be among the preseason league favorites for the first time this millennium. Even with the loss of four-year starting quarterback Reggie Ball, offensive coordinator Patrick Nix, All-American Calvin Johnson and several defensive stalwarts, the Jackets return 17 starters from a team that posted an ACC best 7-1 league record last season.

"It's going to be different," said Durant Brooks, Georgia Tech's All-American punter. "All the eyes will be on us. You have to be able to deal with all the pressure and the talk."

The hype begins today at the ACC Football Kickoff, the conference's annual preseason media days. Coach Chan Gailey and the Yellow Jackets' new biggest stars, tailback Tashard Choice and linebacker Philip Wheeler, along with the coaches and star players of the league's other 11 teams, will face several hundred reporters at the Pinehurst Resort.

Those media members will vote in a preseason poll, to be released Monday. And as the defending Coastal Division champion, Georgia Tech should be picked near the top.

Here's what else the Yellow Jackets can expect at the ACC Football Kickoff:

' Questions about an offense that loses its two biggest playmakers and will be on its third play-caller in three seasons.

The Jackets already have the answers.

"That's not even a question for us after what we saw in the spring," said defensive lineman Darryl Richard. "There are playmakers on that side of the ball. Fans need to get ready to hear a lot more names when it comes to our offense."

There are still plenty of familiar names on offense. The Jackets return four offensive lineman, backfield mates Choice and fullback Mike Cox and second-leading receiver James Johnson.

Quarterback Taylor Bennett threw for over 300 yards in the Gator Bowl, and new coordinator John Bond didn't change Georgia Tech's scheme, he tweaked it.

' Doubts that a defense without a shutdown cornerback and new leaders in the front seven can remain one of the ACC's stingiest.

The Yellow Jackets lost three of their defensive cornerstones in cornerback Kenny Scott, linebacker KaMichael Hall and defensive tackle Joe Anoai -all exhausted their eligibility last season - but return the other eight starters.

No big deal, said Georgia Tech's Gailey.

"Leadership will not be an issue this year whatsoever," Gailey said during spring practice. "We have great leadership in this senior class."

Plus, Wheeler is among the nation's best linebackers and talent at defensive end and safety should help offset Georgia Tech's cornerback shortcomings.

' Kudos for Brooks, the All-American punter.

Brooks could prove to be Georgia Tech's most valuable player. He ranked in the top-five nationally in both net and gross punting last season and was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation's best punter.

Brooks spent the spring and summer working on his directional punting, which could improve on his 41-yard net average from last season.

"I want to put it to where I want it," Brooks said. "Last year, I didn't like that. We'd have a direction called and I might not hit it in that direction. This year, I want to hit it to the right or left and let my coverage take care of the rest."