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Ken SugiuraKen Sugiura

Why Hamilton struggled as a freshman

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The second in a series of posts generated from an interview with Georgia Tech legend and new member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Joe Hamilton. The first, on how Hamilton chose Tech, is here.

 

In Joe Hamilton’s first year as starting quarterback, his redshirt freshman year, Georgia Tech finished 5-6, missing out on a bowl berth by one win. Even worse, the Yellow Jackets sat at five wins with four games left and lost all four, to Florida State, Maryland, Navy and Georgia.

Hamilton says he still apologizes to seniors on that team for costing them a bowl trip.

“If they had just a little bit more mature quarterback, a guy that wouldn’t turn the ball over to the tune of seven touchdowns, 12 interceptions (actually 13), we could have started the bowl (streak) a little earlier,” Hamilton said.

It was hardly a bad season for Hamilton. His completion rate of 57.8 percent (108-for-188) was second highest in the ACC. He was runner-up to North Carolina cornerback Dre Bly (with whom Hamilton will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame) for ACC rookie of the year. His 115.87 passer efficiency rating was fourth in the ACC. But he had a significant hand in the losses, throwing late-game interceptions against Maryland, Navy and Georgia to seal those losses. (Interestingly, the interception he threw to clinch the Bulldogs’ 19-10 win in Athens was caught by Kirby Smart, now Alabama’s defensive coordinator.)

Coming in as a freshman, Hamilton said he picked up the offense quickly, but still had a lot to learn. He couldn’t outrun everyone on the field anymore, as he had done in high school. He had to learn to not force plays. He was grateful, he said, to Donnie Davis, who started in 1995 and allowed Hamilton to redshirt.

The year “gave me a chance to get my feet wet under me academically and go ahead and compete the next year,” he said.

On the field, Hamilton said he struggled with coverages, particularly cover-2 defenses. He had trouble surveying defenses prior to the snap and processing what he was seeing, and then understanding how it might change after the snap. They weren’t skills that came naturally and had to be developed.

“I tell you, I really, really struggled early on,” he said.

That wasn’t the only problem. Hamilton said that teammates had a hard time understanding him.

“I’m from South Carolina, you guys still hear a little Geechee or Gullah (dialect), whatever you call it,” he said. “I struggled with calling the plays. Clarity, enunciation.”

Hamilton said he took a speech class to help him learn to speak more clearly. It was all part of the process of developing into a hall of famer. Hamilton said that when he apologizes to the seniors from that team, they understand.

“I mean, how could you be ready?” he said. “But I just wasn’t ready to lead the way I should have.”

The next year, Hamilton led Tech to the Carquest Bowl. The Jackets have not missed a bowl since.

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