ATLANTA - Georgia Tech enters this season with great expectations.
Why shouldn't they? Tech returns 15 starters from last season's offensive powerhouse.
The Yellow Jackets, averaging 35.5 points per game behind the arm of diminutive quarterback Joe Hamilton, rolled to a 10-2 (7-1 ACC) record, including a 35-28 victory over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl and a final No. 9 Associated Press ranking.
Now with success comes expectations for the upcoming season. The Yellow Jackets are ranked 11th in both the AP preseason poll and the USA Today ESPN coaches' poll.
"I think it's good that there are great expectations," said coach George O'Leary. "That's a big change from when we first took over four years ago. I'd rather see us in this position than in the position of no expectations."
No greater expectation exists than for Hamilton, a Heisman Trophy candidate. Listed at 5-foot-10, 189 pounds, he guided Tech to its most productive point average since John Heisman coached the team in 1918.
"I'm ready to go," said Hamilton, who has been boosted by a Heisman CD-ROM and mouse pad in preseason. "It's my senior season, but it's like my first. I'm excited; I'm ready to do it, and when it's over, it's over.
"Until then, this is like my freshman year."
Should anything happen to Hamilton, Tech's fortunes would be as uncertain as his backup. Sophomore George Godsey, who saw action in six games last season, beat out red-shirt freshman Jermaine Crenshaw and freshman Brian Camp.
Receiver Dez White, a junior, returns as Hamilton's primary target. Last season he had 46 receptions for 973 yards and nine TDs, on his way to being a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. White should again vie for the award given to the nation's top receiver.
White, who boasts breakaway speed, size and running ability, will again return kickoffs. He excelled on special teams with two TDs, including a 100-yarder against Maryland and a 26.2-yard average -- 15th best nationally.
Double teams should be common for White unless the rest of the receiving corps can step up for big plays. Included in this group are sophomore Kelly Campbell, red-shirt freshman Kerry Watkins, and juniors Jon Muyres, Brett Basquin and Titus Nelson (ECI).
Campbell, the Yellow Jackets' fastest receiver, scored a 55-yard touchdown in last year's win over Georgia. Muyres returns after missing last season with a foot injury.
Tech's running game by committee should lessen the loss of tailback Charlie Rogers. The "spread the ball around" philosophy kept any one player from exceeding 500 yards.
One of the top returners, sophomore Joe Burns, rushed for 474 yards and five TDs. He is joined by short-yardage specialist Phillip Rogers, a senior, and red-shirt freshman Gordon Clinkscale. Solid blocker Ed Wilder (Washington-Wilkes), a junior, returns at fullback with help from walk-ons Paul Hogg and Josh Rackley, and sophomore Josh Long.
The tight end work belongs to sophomore Russell Matvay and Conrad Andrzejewski, a red-shirt senior.
Heading up one of the nation's best offensive lines is Tech's biggest player, senior Jon Carman. The 6-8, 335-pound tackle, one of four returning starters on the line, is mirrored by left side tackle Chris Brown (6-6, 315), a junior from Butler High.
"We learned how to win last season," said Carman. "Now when we take the field, we'll know how to act -- like we've been there before."
Corrective shoulder and wrist surgery cost Brown spring practice time, but junior Kevin Knapp and red-shirt freshman Dustin Vaitekanas were given the opportunity to step forward.
The greatest concern for Tech is shoring up a defense that allowed nearly 400 yards per game.
This task falls upon new defensive coordinator Ted Roof, whose first task is to replace both ends and improve the secondary. His improvements have to come quickly, as the Yellow Jackets play at Florida State on Sept. 11.
Juniors Felipe Claybrooks and Andy Josephson will have the task of replacing a senior trio that accounted for 17 sacks. The team's best pure pass rusher, Claybrooks boasted 10 sacks while playing just half time.
Strong performances are expected from freshman Fred Wright, junior Ira Claxton and sophomore Nick Rogers.
The secondary is headed by free safety Travares Tillman, who had 82 tackles and one interception. Other safeties include senior Reggie Wilcox and sophomores Marty O'Leary and Chris Young. Eleven-game starter Jamara Clark, a junior, returns as cornerback with help from red-shirt freshman Marvious Hester and junior Troy Tolbert, who will serve a two-game academic suspension.
The kicking game is wide open with the graduation of both Tech's punter and placekicker. Punting duties will be won in a battle between sophomore walk-on Dan [filtered word] and freshman Philip Newman. Both have been impressive in practice. Junior Kai Cornwell made his only field goal attempt last year but is facing stiff competition from USA Today second-team prep All-American Luke Manget.
Georgia Tech radio affiliates:
Augusta, WRDW-AM 1480
Louisville, WPEH-AM 1420
Sandersville, WSNT-AM 1490
Statesboro, WWNS-AM 1240
Thomson, WTWA-AM 1240
Washington, WLOV-FM 100.1
All Georgia Tech Radio Network broadcasts can be heard on the Internet at www.ramblinwreck.com
The George O'Leary Show can be seen at 7 p.m. Sundays, on WBEK-TV (Ch. 67).
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