Every Tech fan can tell you about the successes and future potential of players like Josh Nesbitt, Jonathan Dwyer, Michael Johnson and Morgan Burnett. But, putting together a season like the Yellow Jackets are about to finish up takes more than just the stars to make it happen. It takes contributions from all over from the coaching staff to the players to the people who support them. It takes people doing little things right and knowing what your role on the team.
Two players I want to focus on in particular are guys who have filled in their roles admirably both on the field and off it to get the team to where it is today.
Austin Barrick resisted the temptation to leave the team after a coaching change that left him without a natural position. With such a different style of offense coming in with the new coaching staff, many players and recruits, understandably in many cases, turned away from Georgia Tech because they felt they were no longer a fit for what was to take place on the field. Austin "Barricade" stuck it out and found himself going from a running back in spring to a starting right tackle in the final three games of the year, including the memorable game against Georgia that broke a seven game losing streak against Tech's hated rivals. His story is inspiring and a tribute to persistence.
Kyle Jackson had a nickname coined by this site during his days as a Georgia Tech recruit. The "Ambassador" was known to be a huge Tech fan before he became a Yellow Jacket and he was even rallying other guys in his eventual recruiting class to come to Tech even before he even received his own offer. He is credited for his efforts in networking with other top athletes. Its importance is something that he and his class have stressed to subsequent classes. The GT recruiting class of 2007 will probably go down as one of the best in our history and certainly the fruits of the class were seen in this 2008 season. 11 different players from that class started games this year and guys like Nesbitt, Dwyer, Roddy Jones, Morgan Burnett, and Derrick Morgan are the foundation for the high hopes from Tech fans for future seasons. Kyle's contributions have now carried on from his days as a recruit to the field after sitting out a redshirt year. He played in almost every game this season, in a year when Tech was riddled with injuries at his position, and contributed at all three linebacker positions. He exemplifies teamwork and leadership.
Austin toiled on the depth chart at tight end for years and then attempted to earn playing time as an A-back in Coach Paul Johnson's offense. Finally he moved to offensive line and it is now clear that he found his calling. After injuries to both starting offensive tackles this season, Austin earned his first start in the game against UNC. He followed that up with starts in memorable wins against Miami and Georgia. "Andrew (Gardner) got hurt, I believe, in the FSU game – he was playing left (tackle), and then David (Brown) hurt his neck, and me and Nick (Claytor) had to step in," said Barrick. "It's been crazy." Claytor filled in at Gardner's spot on the left side and Barrick became the right tackle.
Though Austin admits the transition from skill position to offensive line was difficult, he credits his supporting cast for making the transition go smoothly. "It's been a big adjustment going from A-back to Tackle, but I really haven't minded it at all," said Barrick. "It's a great group of guys on the line and whenever you block for guys like Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones, they make it easier."
Some might worry about heading to Athens without both starting tackles, including All-ACC LT Gardner. Pundits might have also worried about filling in one of those spots with a former TE/RB. But Austin was up for the task and ended up be part of a memorable day for Tech football. "It's definitely an honor being a part of that – ending the streak," said Barrick. "Looking back coming out if high school, number one, I never thought I'd be playing tackle, number two, I never thought I'd be starting against Georgia at tackle and helping us win."
Just because Austin has now found his calling on the line, that doesn't mean he still doesn't long for the days when he'd get his hands on the football. On his favorite position, he said, "I have a little bias toward catching the ball, of course. Once you get a taste of it, you never lose the hunger for the ball, but I really do enjoy playing tackle. I like the physicality of it, also my skills fit in perfectly here at this position."
Speaking of getting out and catching the ball, I would be remiss if I didn't ask Austin about his glorious time in the spotlight in the Georgia game. Let me set the scene. GT had finally taken a 35-28 lead over the Dawgs and they were once again in UGA territory with time running down in the third quarter thanks to a 61-yard run from Roddy Jones. Dwyer was stopped for a yard on first down and Nesbitt followed that play up with a 4-yard loss when he slipped while running the option. That play clearly rankled Coach Johnson when cameras panned to him over on the sidelines, but he had the perfect play called next to put a smile back on his face – a lateral to his former TE turned RT. Barrick made the catch and was heading for a 3rd-and-13 first down. But seeing a chance to get more yardage, he busted a cutback move and was caught and dragged down 2 yards shy. Tech had to kick the field goal and Austin had to make the long walk over to the sidelines. Knowing the ending to the game, it's funny now to go back and watch (probably still not for Austin) but Coach Johnson waited for Austin to come over and gave him a now-patented verbal lashing.
I didn't ask Austin what Coach said to him but a good lip reader can probably figure it out. But I did ask him to run through the play again with me. "You know, I thought I saw Dan Voss coming up on the left side, and I kind of reverted back to my tight end days." When asked if he was waiting to pull in behind his blockers, he said, "I was, but I forgot that I'm 20 pounds heavier than I used to be." So why didn't he just ram into the defender to get the first? "When I heard the call in the huddle, I kind of got really nervous," said Barrick sheepishly. "It's been three years since I caught it, so I forgot down-and-distance. If I had known I was one yard away, I would have lowered the boom." Austin expressed his deep desire to get the ball again down the line and promised a different result. "Whoever it is better brace themselves," he said.
I mentioned previously that Austin had stuck it out at Tech through the coaching change despite being a man without a position. I also wanted to know his reasons for staying when others around him were looking for greener pastures. "Whenever I heard Coach (Chan) Gailey was leaving, I thought about leaving, but I never really entertained the idea that much," said Barrick. "When I originally signed here, education was a big thing to me – this degree you just can't put a price tag on it. As far as coach-wise, I heard about Coach Johnson and how good of a coach he was. When he came and talked to us, he really convinced me. Speaking of guys leaving, Taylor (Bennett) leaving – obviously he's good player – but I had a lot of confidence in the guys we had here. I knew Josh (Nesbitt) was going to be a star and Jon Dwyer as well. We just had a good base coming back and I knew we had the formula for success."
Austin had cut his weight by 10 pounds to be an A-back, then gained 20 pounds on top of that when told he'd be an offensive line. That gets him to his playing weight today of 270 pounds. That's a weight he feels comfortable playing at and he says there may be room for another 5 pounds more at the most for next year, but he feels like he is right about at where he needs to be.
When asked what position he'd be moving to for next season, Austin said with a laugh, "Hopefully I'll be anchoring that right side again."
Though most people call him Kyle on a day-to-day basis, Mr. Jackson has collected a couple of nicknames since he's become a Yellow Jacket. He says that sometimes when he makes plays he may get a, "all right Ambassador!" He also inadvertently gave himself a nickname that some use for him. "I had a facebook status for the longest time that said, ‘Legacy Begins,' when I did a countdown from my redshirt year to the start of this year's camp, because I'm a strong believer in… the Bible says ‘Every man has his legacy,' so I'm a strong believer in that. So a lot of guys started calling me "The Legacy." I guess that one ended up in me nicknaming myself."
The "Ambassador" came into being because of his diligence and leadership in rallying his recruiting class a couple of years ago. Kyle recalls the days when he was helping the coaching staff build up one of the best recruiting classes in Tech's history. "It was more of a networking kind of thing to where as we committed, the guys who were committed started reaching out to others," said Jackson. "I know I made a big push myself and started calling some of the guys but then… we started becoming a close group and we all started talking to other guys. I stayed in touch with a lot of the guys and we'd meet them when they were on their officials sometimes and even outside of that we contacted each other."
One player in particular Kyle became close friends with in the recruiting process and Kyle put more effort in getting to Tech over all others. "The one guy I probably talked to the most was probably Roddy, because me and Roddy were really close through the combines and unofficial visits," said Jackson. "And I remember sending him a text when he was on his visit to Clemson and I said something about, "I hope you have a good trip but I hope your visit with Clemson is terrible." He still had a good trip but he came back and committed to Tech. We still joke about it now but Roddy was probably the one I contacted the most after I got committed because I was really cool with Roddy. And then his dad and my dad actually ended up working together, so we developed a little bond."
I mentioned to Kyle that fans sense a culture of networking among commits and possible recruits continuing on in subsequent classes; the most recent example being that of future QB Jordan Luallen. And that atmosphere of building bonds doesn't happen by accident. It happens through efforts of the coaching staff and current players, like Kyle, passing the importance of it down to others. "One of the things we tell them now when they come on visits – me, Roddy and Nick when we're hosting – we try to tell them, ‘make sure you get close,' because it was a fun experience when we came on that big official visit," said Jackson. "We had already known each other so it was like another day with your boys. Even more, outside of that, when we got here, our experience as a class was so much easier – dealing with the transition from high school to college, even the transition from high school football to college football – it was so much easier. I can still remember the first weekend we got here – all 20 of us went out together. We packed into four cars but we still made the trip to go out together. I feel like that's really helped us a lot. Even now, since we've been here, we play so well together because we're so close – our class is really close. Even the other classes are starting to mesh, so that's the big difference with this team now, people are starting to get that closeness."
When you see Kyle these days on campus you can help but notice he carries himself differently on game days at Yellow Jacket Alley versus other times when he's showing his gregarious personality. He seems to have made a transition from friendly faced recruit to game faced contributor. Kyle said that he switches on a different attitude for game day. He puts his ipod on "game day mix" and shuffles among 170 songs. He says he likes to block everything out, put his head down, and just focus on the task at hand.
It's a big difference going from showing leadership as a recruit to being a young linebacker working his way up the depth chart after sitting out an entire redshirt year. It's a transition Kyle continues to work on. It certainly helps though now to be on the field where he can start to lead by example before the rest of the team will listen to what he has to say. "I'm still working my way through," said Jackson. "I've always been one of those guys that would rather lead by actions and not by words. For me, I'm still a young guy, I'm still making my mistakes, but I'm trying to get there. I definitely want to be a leader on this team. Coach (Dave) Wommack has it now to where he wants there to be 11 leaders on the defense. It's just one of those things where I'm trying to build my way up but leadership comes with time as well. I've got to follow before I can lead."
Kyle wasn't one of the linebackers most people talked about in the off-season when guessing who be the biggest contributors, but he's been a steady force since the first practice. The linebacker corps suffered though many tough injuries this season. Guys like Anthony Barnes, Shane Bowen, Brad Jefferson, and Sedric Griffin all missed time this year due to injury. Kyle wasn't totally immune to the injury bug either as he missed the Mississippi State game. But Kyle has been every bit as valuable on the field as he's shown to be off the field. He's started games, he's played all three linebackers positions, and he's filled in as needed and as asked by the coaching staff. Though all of the moving around the roster, Kyle has managed to be the linebacker position's season leader in tackles with 59 total, 3rd most on the entire team. That's the very meaning of leading by example.
Kyle looks forward to continuing his improvement as a football player. "In the off-season I'm definitely going to be in the weight room," said Jackson. "I've already told Coach (Eric) Ciano that he's going to be the devil this off-season because I'm about to sell my soul to him this off-season." Kyle is at 220-pounds now but wants to gain another 5-10 pounds in muscle this off-season. He also plans to spend more time in the film room understanding his opponents. He wants to do all of this while continuing to do well in school.