Redshirt junior Taylor Bennett has shined in those two starts. In 2005, after Reggie Ball got ill before a game versus Connecticut, Bennett came in and threw a 42-yard touchdown pass on his first snap of his collegiate career. It's believed to be only the second time in Division 1A history that the accomplishment has been achieved with Matt Leinart of USC being the other signal caller.
Bennett's breakout contest came last year in the Gator Bowl. After Ball had been ruled ineligible, the sophomore stepped in and his performance was noteworthy. Bennett went 19-of-29 for 326 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-35 loss to West Virginia. But on Saturday, the junior will get his first taste of starting on the road at Notre Dame. The Gator Bowl experience will help ease the transition.
"Whenever you can get a game underneath your belt, that's the best thing you can ask for," Bennett said. "Game experience is something that can't be replaced by practice or anything. To be able to go out there and play a good team like West Virginia, it helped me out a lot with my confidence and how to play in a game."
Bennett won't have one of his big-time targets back from the Gator Bowl contest. All-world wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who caught two touchdowns and 186 yards of passes in the game, was picked 2nd overall by the Detroit Lions in last April's NFL Draft. Junior James Johnson is the leading returning wideout after catching 39 balls for 608 yards and seven touchdowns in 2006. Redshirt sophomore Greg Smith and redshirt freshman Demaryius Thomas are the other two primary options for Bennett. There won't be a Calvin Johnson-type of talent at the position but Georgia Tech feels comfortable with the group they have.
"Any team that was to lose a Calvin Johnson would worry about replacing that type of player" head coach Chan Gailey said. "But if you don't have confidence in your own players and what they bring to the table, then you are wrong as well. We have a great deal of confidence in our guys. They have shown in spring practice and in the preseason that we have the chance to be a very good receiving corps this year."
Without Johnson, the shift of the offense goes to the running game. Tashard Choice had a stellar junior season, rushing for an ACC-best 1,473 yards and 12 touchdowns. The 6-1, 205-pound back averaged 5.0 yards per carry and also was the team's third leading receiver. Choice has four starting offensive line back to open up the running lanes. The senior finished 2006 with seven straight 100-yard performances, including 169 in the Gator Bowl loss and had the fifth most carries in nation last year. Choice felt that as the season progressed, the opportunities to shine became more plentiful.
"At the beginning of the season, our scheme wasn't for me to run the football," Choice said. "The first four or five games, I didn't run the ball. Last year against Notre Dame, I only ran the ball 15 times. I wasn't part of the scheme. Our whole team was trying to get the ball to Calvin Johnson. I wasn't the focus. Once we started our running attack, though, our offensive coordinator saw we could run the football. Once we did that, we were successful."
Choice, who was recruited by Notre Dame under Tyrone Willingham but never took a visit to South Bend, now becomes the "man" in the offense. Opposing defenses will game plan to stop No. 22. The senior, who transferred from Oklahoma in 2004, is pumped up to be the focal point of the Yellow Jackets offense.
"I'm excited," Choice said. "This is what I live for. This is what you play for as a little kid. They trust you to make plays on the field. Being in that role, there's more responsibility and you have to do more for your team. I ready to step up to the challenge."
The Georgia Tech offense will be facing the new look Notre Dame defense. Coordinator Corwin Brown was brought in to replace Rick Minter and installed a 3-4 personnel defense. It's unclear how much the Irish defense will blitz or stay back in coverage. The player who'll have to deal with the pre-snap movements and oncoming defenders is Bennett.
"We've seen the top defenses in the country," Bennett said. "That's nothing against Notre Dame. I think we've seen good enough defenses in the past that nothing is going to shock us when we go out. They have a new coordinator though and we don't have a lot of film on him. But I think we've done a good enough job preparing for the 3-4 and know their personnel well enough that we'll be fine."
A bonus for Bennett is the opposing defense he faces every day in practice. The Yellow Jackets return eight starters on that side of the ball from a group that ranked in the top-30 in pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense and rush defense. Bennett believes that dealing with the likes of Phillip Wheeler on a regular basis and the variety of blitzes defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta will help on Saturday afternoon inside Notre Dame Stadium.
"I think it's a good thing to go against Coach Tenuta's defense everyday," Bennett said. "Not everyone gets that opportunity in practice. He shows us every look you could possibly think of and every blitz you can think of. I would like to think I've seen it all but I haven't. It keeps us on our toes and hopefully it carries over from the spring to the fall."
Bennett has no idea who'll be taking the snaps for Notre Dame. The redshirt junior does believe that the pressure the Yellow Jackets bring can sometimes fluster opposing quarterbacks.
"I don't know who they are starting up there," Bennett said. "If it's a young guy, I think it's going to be a little overwhelming to see everything Coach Tenuta can bring."