ATLANTA - Darryl Richard was a big story in Georgia Tech's 2005 spring - for all wrong reasons.
After a strong finish to his 2004 freshman season, including two quarterback sacks - one for a safety - in the Yellow Jackets' Champs Sports Bowl win over Syracuse, Richard looked like a rising star on the team's defense.
Richard was a projected starter for the 2005 season, but those plans ended a year ago with a devastating knee injury in spring practice. The defensive tackle had surgery last May and needed the full year to come back for this year's spring drills.
Once again, Richard is a big part of Tech's plans.
"I've been waiting 11 months for this," Richard said.
Richard said his return to team drills "made me feel like I was part of the family again."
For a sophomore who has started only three games in his career, Richard is a very big part of Tech's football family. The defense has only five starters back from a unit which ranked 13th in the nation against the run last season.
Tech needs the big-play potential Richard flashed late in the 2004 season, because the losses from the 2005 defense are daunting: Eric Henderson, the defensive end who is Tech's all-time leader in tackles for loss; Gerris Wilkinson, Tech's leading tackler in 2005; Chris Reis, the versatile safety and second-leading tackler last year; Dawan Landry, another safety who was the Yellow Jackets' third-leading tackler last season; and cornerback Dennis Davis, who had three interceptions last season.
Finally, Mansfield Wrotto, a three-year starter on the defensive line, has moved to offense.
The front line lost Henderson and Wrotto but still is viewed as the strength of the defense. Veterans Adamm Oliver and Joe Anoai are returning starters, and 2005 backups Darrell Robertson, Michael Johnson, Vance Walker, Elris Anyaibe and David Brown are moving into bigger roles.
"Probably the strongest area of our football team is our defensive line, with guys who have played quite a few plays," said coach Chan Gailey. "We have great expectations for Darryl Richard."
Oliver and Robertson are the first-team ends, and Anoai and Richard are the starting tackles.
"It's not like we've really lost anything," Oliver said. "We've definitely come back strong. We're still just as strong."
Richard says he is "full go" and has been cleared for all contact drills.
He just has to convince himself that he has fully recovered from the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Richard says "Everything feels good" but he says it is taking time to regain complete confidence in the knee.
"I'm still kind of waiting on it a little bit with this leg, to get that reassurance that everything is OK," he said.
"I'm adjusting on working on my cuts. Self-consciously I think I'm stopping myself a little bit, but I think it's holding up well."
Richard was more than a top football prospect at Destrehan (La.) High.
He was rated the No. 9 defensive lineman in the nation by recruiting expert Tom Lemming. He also was student body president and one of five national finalists for the Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Trophy, which recognizes academic excellence among black male high school students.
Richard (6-4, 285) spent most of last year improving his upper-body strength as he rehabbed his knee.
"Having him inside at tackle is really going to help us," Oliver said.
"I think he's definitely improved. He's gotten stronger. He's taken advantage of the time he was off to work on his upper body."
Oliver and Anoai each had three sacks last year, but Richard had four sacks in much more limited time as a freshman in 2004. He had only 14 tackles, but seven were behind the line of scrimmage.
Tech coaches are hoping Richard can be as productive as a full-time starter this year.
"I hope so, because I'm expecting that myself," he said.
"What's happened in the past with injuries, that's history. I've had time to get back to where I started. I'm feeling good to go through the spring because I didn't have much time last spring."
Added Richard: "We're picking up where we left off."
Notes: Safety Joe Gaston has suffered a knee injury that will keep him out for the 2006 season, according to Gailey. Gaston, a senior listed as a starter on the spring depth chart, was a backup the last three seasons. He had 14 tackles last season. Jamal Lewis has moved from cornerback to the safety spot that had been manned by Gaston as Gailey's staff continues to adjust after losing 2005 starters Chris Reis and Dawan Landry. Djay Jones is the projected starter at the other safety position.