Georgia Tech’s three dismissals Tuesday sent another undeniable message that rules are rules, and coach Paul Johnson (and the student-athlete conduct code) demands that his players abide by them.
It also, however, whittled the Yellow Jackets’ roster down even more. By my count, assuming there are no more changes to the roster, Tech will begin preesason camp with 77 scholarship players, meaning they’ll be eight light of the maximum. It’s a result of players transferring, being dismissed, declared academically ineligible or medically disqualified, particularly doing so after signing day, when there is little chance to re-stock the roster. (Johnson did well to add offensive lineman Eason Fromayan via transfer and safety Shaun Kagawa as a late signee over the summer.)
By comparison, by my counting, Tech had 82 players go to camp last season, although the number quickly decreased to 80 when B-back Travis Custis left the team because of NCAA clearinghouse issues and safety Fred Holton was removed from the team and transferred. If you’ll remember, center Catlin Alford decided not to return just before camp began. I didn’t include him in the 82.
Were Anthony Autry, Darius Commissiong and Travin Henry going to make or break the 2014 season? Probably not. (I think Autry would have contributed, and it’s conceivable Commissiong and Henry could have developed, but we won’t find out.) Can a football team be successful with 77 scholarship players? Undoubtedly.
But it means that the margin of error has again been reduced. Tech has a little less room for injuries. The sizeable incoming freshman class will likely need to deliver some hits this fall. The redshirt freshman class, which includes two likely starters on the offensive line, has to contribute. Perhaps some walk-ons can play big roles on special teams.
Commission and Henry in particular probably weren’t going to see much playing time, but even still, it’s two fewer bodies on the scout team.
Having slightly fewer scholarship players is not the end of the world, but it makes a difference. I remember in 2008, Johnson’s first season, that he occasionally made mention of the impact of Tech’s scholarship reduction penalty (79 in 2006-07 and 2007-08) that it was serving as a result of its using ineligible players between 1998 and 2004.
(This was interesting: In doing a Google search to find what the actual penalty was, I found an old Associated Press story about the scholarship reduction with this line: “New Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich said he is confident Tech will avoid future conflicts with NCAA rules.”)
Another challenge is that, of the 77 scholarship players, 32 have not played a down of college football. (Not counting Kenderius Whitehead, who played last year at Georgia Military College.) Last year’s team had 28 such players as the season began. Another eight on this year’s roster have played one season and had not started, meaning more than half of the team has played one season or less without a start. (Last year’s team had 11 players with a season of experience or less with no starts for 39 players out of 80 without significant experience.)
That’s a difference of four players between last year’s team and this year’s, i.e., 37 players with more than a year’s experience vs. 41 last year. It’s not a jarring difference, but you’d certainly rather have four more such players than last year’s team than four fewer. A lot of experience walked out the door after the Music City Bowl.
There’s no reason that a freshman or sophomore couldn’t make an immediate impact. Freshmen Lance and Lawrence Austin and KeShun Freeman and sophomore transfer Kenderius Whitehead all look like candidates to be playmakers for the Jackets. What it does mean, though, as noted above, that a successful season will probably require some surprises than expected from that group. A team replacing starters at several key positions has another obstacle.
If there’s a positive for Tech, it’s that this could conceivably aid the chemistry that players like Quayshawn Nealy and Shaquille Mason touted at the ACC Kickoff. With a paucity of star players, Tech needs to have everyone going in the same direction, and perhaps there’s a benefit in being without players who were repeat offenders of the student-athlete conduct code.
“The team has really rallied around each other and (is) pushing each other,” Mason said. “I like that as far as people standing up, speaking out, just no mediocrity. There’s a low tolerance for anything other than anything positive.”