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There's a buzz about Yellow Jackets

Jokes and funny one-liners aren't a part of Chan Gailey's delivery. Not in public, anyway.

Georgia Tech's second-year coach keeps his comments on the dry side, like his Southern drawl, which is about the only distinguishable flavor he's willing to reveal in his personality.

But, don't be fooled. The simple and straightforward way of doing things has a creative complexity to it when Gailey gets involved. The man knows how to improvise and he's not afraid to take chances.

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    How many other coaches would have given up the security of a fifth-year senior returning starter at quarterback in favor of an 18-year-old just out of high school?

    That's what Gailey did in August when he chose freshman Reggie Ball to lead the Yellow Jackets.

    Two months later, Gailey appears to have matched his personality with Ball's best chance for success, offering a simple and efficient (what else?) game plan: limit the turnovers; make plays when they're available.

    Even Gailey is surprised at the results.

    Ball and the Yellow Jackets are playing well beyond preseason expectations heading into Thursday night's ESPN game against Maryland. The outcome could have a dramatic effect on the Atlantic Coast Conference standings at season's end.

    "It's probably that we have matured a little bit faster than I had anticipated. I think the Clemson game (a 39-3 loss on Sept. 20) was a giant dose of reality as to who we are,'' Gailey said.

    "We are a team that has to go out and throw their best game on the field every week to give ourselves a chance to win. Not to guarantee victory, but to give ourselves a chance to win.''

    Since the Clemson game, Ball has thrown for 616 yards and five touchdowns with only two interceptions as part of a current three-game winning streak.

    Currently, Tech is one of five teams with two league losses. Maryland is alone in second place and on a five-game winning streak since taking its only ACC loss on Sept. 6 at Florida State.

    That the Yellow Jackets remain within striking distance of a second-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference is one of the surprise developments of the season in the league.

    A last-minute, 14-13 loss at Florida State on Sept. 13 could end up being the only thing to stop Tech from winning the league title. That from a team picked to finish eighth (just ahead of Duke) in preseason balloting of media who cover the league.

    "They're playing very inspired. They're giving a tremendous effort. I'm just seeing a whole different team from a year ago,'' Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.

    Gailey doesn't get much credit for his two seasons as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, in spite of leading them to an NFC East title and to the playoffs both seasons.

    After two seasons as the Miami Dolphins' offensive coordinator, Gailey eagerly accepted a chance to replace George O'Leary at Georgia Tech. Gailey, who was born in Gainesville, Ga. -- about 45 minutes northeast of the Tech campus -- and played football at Americus (Ga.) High, said he liked the opportunity to return to his home state and was ready to trade the business of professional football for the enthusiasm of the college game.

    The former University of Florida quarterback quickly learned the college game has its share of land mines, too. Some Tech fans vented their passions by calling for Gailey's head after the Yellow Jackets lost at Georgia by 44 points to close the 2002 regular season.

    Then, in the spring, Gailey's roster was severely depleted by an academic snafu that resulted in nearly a dozen players losing their eligibility. Among them, All-American tailback candidate Tony Hollings.

    School career sacks leader Greg Gathers later was forced to end his Tech career because of a kidney ailment.

    Still, Gailey opted to ditch senior quarterback A.J. Suggs, a Tennessee transfer who started every game a year ago, throwing for 2,242 yards and 12 touchdowns, while completing 57.3-percent of his passes.

    Week by week, Gailey has found ways to keep the Yellow Jackets competitive. In spite of being last in the league in total offense (310.1 yards a game) and next-to-last in scoring (17.6 points a game), Gailey has slowly unveiled an approach that has Tech on the verge of something special.

    "As a coaching staff, you're always trying to get a feel for what your players can do best and what they don't do best, so we're trying to put our players in a position to do that,'' Gailey said. "It's started to come together better in the past few weeks.''

    Sophomore tailback P.J. Daniels, a former walk-on, is second in the ACC in rushing (89.0 yards a game) and senior wideout Jonathan Smith leads the ACC in receiving yardage (103.6).

    Don't expect Gailey to break out any gimmicks to approach a Maryland defense rated 10th in the nation in points allowed. That wouldn't be Gailey's style, though he's not opposed to adding a little flavoring now and then.

    "We're not going to get too extravagant week by week,'' he said. "We got a lot more things we'd like to do in the future, but right now we've kept it under control this year.''

    Doug Carlson covers college football for the Tampa Tribune.