Yellow Jackets refuse 'rebuilding' notion

GREENSBORO - Georgia Tech offensive lineman Andrew Gardner is tired of hearing it, and he added that first-year coach Paul Johnson feels the same.

Rebuilding year? No way.

Not if the senior from Tyrone has anything to do with it.

"I think everybody on the team wants to put this rebuilding notion behind us," Gardner said on the first day of the ACC Football Kickoff on Sunday at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation. "For me, personally, if we don't go to a bowl, I think we've failed. If you don't make it back to a bowl game, you didn't have a successful season."

The Yellow Jackets, who have played in 11 consecutive bowl games, fired Chan Gailey (now the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive coordinator) as coach last season after their seventh consecutive loss against Georgia. Reaching the conference championship game in 2006, losing against Wake Forest 9-6, Georgia Tech then stumbled to a 7-6 mark in 2007. Then, under then-defensive coordinator and interim coach Jon Tenuta (now a Notre Dame assistant), the Yellow Jackets lost 40-28 in the Humanitarian Bowl against Fresno State.

Looking to this season, Georgia Tech returns only four starters on both sides of the ball and has to replace All-ACC specialists Durant Brooks (punter) and Travis Bell (place-kicker).

Rebuilding year? Gardner refuses to hear of it.

"It's my senior year, and me and others are doing everything in our own power to make sure it's not a rebuilding year and that we make good things happen," Gardner said. "We're not looking to be 3-9 this year and go 10-2 next year. We want to win immediately and Coach Johnson talks about the same thing. He wants to win."

Georgia Tech now not only has a new coach, but also a new, triple-option set seldom seen in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. The system, however, worked at Georgia Southern, where Johnson coached two Championship Subdivision championship teams (1999-2000), and at Navy, where the Midshipmen led major college football in rushing the past three years.

The run-oriented offense, however, did not come without some casualties. Last year's starting quarterback Taylor Bennett transferred to Louisiana Tech, and starting tight end Colin Peek transferred to Alabama.

"Concerning the guys who didn't want to be there, it was probably best that they left because we don't need anyone bringing the team down," said Gardner, who was a first-team All-ACC selection last season and is on the Outland Trophy Preseason Watch List. "You want everyone moving in the same direction."

Georgia Tech's offense had a potent running game last year when running back Tashard Choice was healthy. Now that he is gone, sophomore Jonathan Dwyer (436 yards, nine touchdowns in 2007) returns as the leading rusher, followed by Josh Nesbitt (339 yards), who was atop the depth chart at quarterback after spring practice.

The change in offensive philosophy will likely include sets from the wishbone, I, veer and run-and-shoot in attempts to create one-on-one matchups in the passing game. The system change, however, affects more than just the skill players.

"The offensive line plays a lot different than in previous years," Gardner said. "In a more traditional-style offense, you have balanced stance, 50-50, and on the pass you're back a little bit. Now, it's 60-40 with the weight distribution forward and we'll run a lot on plays such as play-action, and that sort of thing."

Although it remains to be seen if all the players have bought into Johnson's system, the coach believes in it. And to Gardner, that's all that matters.

"The coaches are 100 percent sold on it," he said. "And there's no way to know 100 percent until we see it in a game. But we know if we don't get behind it, it won't work. If we buy into it, we definitely have a chance. The best option is for everyone to get on board and all do their best to have this kind of success."

Georgia Tech also has a pre-fall practice fitness test for the offensive linemen, who will be more active because of the new scheme which requires much second and third-level blocking, such as against safeties. In the trenches, however, cut blocks (diving at the knees or lower) will likely be used often.

"It's unbelievable the amount of cut-blocking we will do," Gardner said. "Other ACC teams are probably not going to look forward to facing us because they know they are going to get their legs knocked out from underneath them like a million times, so they better watch out."

Rebuilding year? Defensive tackle Vance Walker also hardly sounded like he was in that mindset.

"That's just an excuse," said Walker, who was a first-team All-Conference selection last season. "Yeah, we have a new coach. But a lot of guys have been here. We know what that job is like. It's just like if you're at a corporate job. If the boss gets fired, it doesn't mean your time has to go down for whatever reason."

Rebuilding year? The two Yellow Jackets in Greensboro prefer to think the time to succeed is now.

"If your goal is to transition to Year 2, you're doomed for failure," Gardner said. "Our goal is to get things down at camp and hit on all cylinders against Jacksonville State. That may be unrealistic to be perfect in Game 1, but that's the goal."


Aug. 28: Jacksonville St., 7:30 p.m. (ESPN360)

Sept. 6: at Boston College, Noon (ESPN)

Sept. 13: at Virginia Tech, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Sept. 20: Mississippi St.

Oct. 4: Duke

Oct. 11: Gardner-Webb

Oct. 18: at Clemson

Oct. 25: Virginia

Nov. 1: Florida State

Nov. 8: at North Carolina

Nov. 20: Miami, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Nov. 29: at Georgia