Bennett prepared to make his mark with the Jackets

Quarterback Taylor Bennett has already made his mark at Georgia Tech.

As a redshirt freshman in 2005, Bennett completed his first collegiate pass for a 42-yard touchdown.

According to Georgia Tech's media guide, Bennett is believed to be only the second quarterback in Division I-A history to throw a touchdown pass on his first career attempt. The first was USC Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart.

"It's kind of nice to say you have some sort of connection with Matt Leinart," said Bennett, a rising junior from St. Louis who joined his teammates for the start of spring practice on March 1. "I'm definitely not comparing myself to him in any way, shape or form, but it's kind of cool to be able to say that."

Bennett may not be Leinart, but the hope around Atlanta is that he's not Reggie Ball, either.

Ball was a four-year starter for the Yellow Jackets whose turbulent tenure ended two weeks before last season's Gator Bowl when he was declared academically ineligible.

Exit Ball. Enter Bennett.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound left-hander torched West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, completing his first eight passes while finishing 19-of-29 for 326 yards and three touchdowns in the Yellow Jackets' 38-35 loss.

The 326 yards were the most by a Georgia Tech quarterback since 2001 and set a school record for passing yardage in a bowl game.

The silver lining in the Yellow Jackets' loss was Bennett's peformance. With 17 starters returning from last season's ACC Coastal Division champions, one of the few question marks surrounding coach Chan Gailey's team heading into 2007 was supposed to be the quarterback position.

Any concerns appeared to be answered in Jacksonville.

"I don't think we'll ever be able to measure how beneficial that was for him," Gailey said. "It gave him a great deal of confidence going into spring practice and it gave us a great deal of confidence in him going into spring practice. We would have been confident in him, but when it's confirmed, that helps."

Bennett and Georgia Tech won't begin the 2007 season in the shallow end of the pool. A trip to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame on Sept. 1 awaits the Yellow Jackets. Tech is 2-16 all-time in South Bend and hasn't won there since 1959.

The game will mark Bennett's third career start. He opened for the first time against Connecticut in 2005 after Ball was sidelined by illness and led Georgia Tech to a 28-13 victory.

Bennett also started the Gator Bowl, but admits that taking the first snap against the Irish will be tough to top.

"I can't even explain to you the feeling knowing that you're about to go play in the holy land of college football on opening day," said Bennett, who played in seven games last season and was 35-of-58 (63
percent) for 523 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. "We love being the underdog and having people say we can't do it. In our program, we perform off the pressure."

There will be a lot more pressure on Bennett and Georgia Tech's offense -- under the direction of first-year coordinator John Bond -- now that the Yellow Jackets won't have ACC Player of the Year Calvin Johnson around to catch the ball.

Johnson was sensational in 2006 with 76 catches for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns despite getting more coverage than Britney Spears.

Gailey claims that losing Johnson early to the NFL isn't all bad.

"There was pressure to throw Calvin Johnson the ball almost every snap even though he might be double-covered," Gailey said. "Now, there is the opportunity to spread the ball around to the open receiver. We don't have a dominating guy anymore at that position."

The Yellow Jackets do have a dominating player at tailback in senior Tashard Choice, the former Oklahoma transfer who led the ACC in rushing last season with 1,473 yards, the second-highest total in school history.

In a league full of good running backs, Choice may be the best. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark in his last seven games of 2006 and set a school record with nine 100-yard games overall.

With four returning starters on the offensive line to go along with Choice, the natural inclination would be to increase the tailback's workload, especially with Bennett's inexperience and the departure of Johnson.

But Gailey said that is unlikely to happen. Last season, Choice set a school record with 297 carries. Only three backs in Division I-A carried more often.

"I think if you try to increase his workload again this year, you would reach a point of diminishing returns," said Gailey, who's heading into his sixth season at Georgia Tech. "I think we're about where we needed to be last year with him."

The defense, under the direction of John Tenuta, may be in even better shape than the Jackets' offense. Georgia Tech lost All-ACC first-team defensive tackle Joe Anoai and leading tackler KaMichael Hall, but returns eight starters including all-conference safety Jamal Lewis and linebacker Philip Wheeler, an All-ACC second-team selection.

Since the 2003 season, Tenuta's crew hasn't ranked lower than 27th nationally in total defense.

That doesn't figure to change next season.

"We feel good about our defense," Gailey said.

There aren't many worries in the kicking game, either. Punter Durant Brooks returns following a phenomenal junior season in which he ranked fourth nationally with a 45.5-yard average. Kicker Travis Bell broke a long slump near the end of 2006 and connected on eight consecutive field goals before missing a 54-yard attempt in the bowl game.

But the most important returner for Georgia Tech may be the 55-year-old Gailey, who was interviewed for the head coaching jobs with the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers during the offseason.

"It didn't work out, but I ended up right back here with a great job," Gailey said.

How great could depend on Bennett.

"I'm very excited," Bennett said. "Kids that come to college to play football have dedicated their lives to playing a sport. That's what I've done. To have the opportunity to be the starter, you can't even explain how it feels."

Beginning on Sept. 1 in South Bend, Bennett will get a chance to make his mark on Georgia Tech football.


Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.