P.J. Daniels put the lock down on the Georgia Tech staring tailback spot this spring, as if there would be any doubt after his 300+ yard performance in the Humanitarian Bowl. But the other backs on the team really proved that we have much more than just PJ to rely on as we head into the 2004 season. And others made serious cases for playing time of their own. There honestly isn't much new to report on PJ's spring. He played each practice as if it were a game and performed as he did the last half of the 2003 season. He is simply… awesome. PJ may have actually dropped a few pounds before spring because he seemed maybe a little slimmer and a little faster. He's as tough a runner as you'll find in the country when running inside and he has enough speed to do some damage when he gets into the open field. Any given play, Daniels can break off 30 yards just like that. If the starting offensive line holds up health-wise, I see no reason PJ can't repeat as first team All-ACC in 2004.
Should anything happen to PJ or whenever the coaches feel he needs a break we won't lose a lot when we insert Chris Woods into the lineup. What a big pleasant surprise he turned out to be this spring. Like Damarius Bilbo at receiver, spring was a coming out party for Woods. We knew he could play just from the time we watched him last season but I, for one, didn't think he could be quite as good as he showed to be this spring. He has a little more wiggle than PJ and is a super change of pace in that respect. He looks slightly faster too. And while nobody matches PJ between the tackles, Chris will take it up there with authority and come away with some tough yards. I would honestly feel 100% comfortable going into the season with Woods as the #1 back if we didn't have Daniels around. He's that good. It is certainly a luxury to have two number ones on the same team. And what makes this situation so amazing is that we have some others behind them that, while not there yet, have the talent to be number one backs as well in the future.
Rashaun Grant is next in line. He was only one of the nation's top running back recruits from just a year ago. He redshirted in 2003 and has four years left to show why he was so highly thought of. After a slow start in 2003, Rashaun built up a lot of buzz in the practices later in the year. Coaches and trainers I talked with were all excited about his abilities, so I couldn't wait to see it for myself this spring. He really didn't disappoint either. He is slighter than Daniels and Woods (but more muscular than last season) but is faster than both and moves better laterally. I can't imagine how tough it will be for teams to try and keep up with Grant in the third and forth quarters of games after dealing with our first two guys all game. Grant is a patient runner and waits for holes to open… and he doesn't require a lot of room. If he can kick it to the outside then defenders start looking for angles to tackle him because there's a chance he could be gone. He still needs some work on his blocking and that's what will keep him off the field for now. He's capable of moving into the slot and being a receiver but I'm not sure how often we'll really see that. I don't think he has the confidence yet to slide out into that role and be effective just yet. He's a super talented addition to this team and the coaching staff will find a good role for him and his talents. It's just tough being behind someone like PJ right now, but like I stated earlier, Grant will be here for four more years. He'll get his chance to shine.
PJ & ACE
Michael Sampson is the wild card at running back. He missed all of last season as a part of the now infamous fail outs. Sampson is the only one of the group to return to Georgia Tech and the football team. This time 1 year ago he was our number one running back then the academic problems hit. He's went through a lot to get back from that and almost made it to spring then hurt his ankle while on spring break. It caused him to miss the first part of spring practice. Finally he got healthy and started to shake off the dust and show why he was the number one back a year ago. Then he pulled a hamstring and missed the rest of spring. We know he has the ability to be good but he is now behind 3 other very talented backs. He'll need to do a lot to overcome the loss of an entire season plus spring practice to get playing time away from those ahead of him. Early on next season the only way he'll really get much playing time is if we have a rash of injuries. I think he probably needs to show some sustained success in practice before the coaches think of him as a real contender for a big role. I'm a very big Sampson fan though. He's a super athlete and will no doubt become a factor down the road. You likely won't find many forth string backs as good as Michael at any program. That just illustrates how talented and deep this group is.
Tech also has two more backs entering in fall…Mike Cox and Drew Gause. It will be tough for either to make an immediate impact. We really don't have a true need for them just yet. It was a luxury in recruiting to land these two but both could be big time players down the road. Gause is a compact speedster than is a good enough athlete to be considered a solid prospect in baseball in addition to football. Cox is a big back in the mold of Mike Alstott or Jerome Bettis. His future could be as a tailback or fullback. He'd face tough competition initially at either position though.
Dixon & ACE
Speaking of fullbacks, leading the team at the position is returning starter Jimmy Dixon, who will be a senior. However junior Ajenavi Eziemefe should get plenty of playing time himself. Both Dixon and ACE have nice hands for big guys. Dixon is more of a good blocking, bruising back. ACE is a little lighter and fleeter of foot. Both had solid springs and seem to have gotten more looks in the passing game than last season. Both players also used to be tailbacks so our coaches wouldn't hesitate to hand them the ball, especially in short yardage situations. Johnathan Jackson is another player not to forget about. He's probably the best athlete of the group but has been riddled with injuries for the past couple of years. If he's healthy, our coaches will likely work him in some too and try to find a good role for him. JJ sat out spring drills so I'll have to wait until fall to see where fits into the offense. It's likely though that he'll backup Jimmy and ACE but play a big role on special teams. Justin Guadagni is the only incoming freshman at this position unless Cox ends up here. Just like the tailback position, not much is expected out of the new guys here because of the depth and experience already on campus. It is nice to have this kind of depth though so that both positions can reload rather than rebuild when the upper classmen move on. It would be nice if the rest of the positions on the team were in this same position. If so we wouldn't be as worried about our losses at linebacker as we are now for example. I believe though that our recruiting efforts will soon put us in that position.