ON SEPT. 7, three days before he threw for two touchdowns and a career-high 320 yards in a 27--21 win over North Carolina, Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball did something he'd never done before: He called a meeting with offensive coordinator Patrick Nix and the rest of the Yellow Jackets quarterbacks. The group had met the day before to go over the game plan, but now Ball wanted to get together again to cram for his Saturday exam. "He'd come to me after the first day of practice last week and said, 'I don't quite get what you want,'" says Nix. "That's an evolution for him. For the first time, I feel like he's really listening to me."
Ball's newfound maturity and dedication has the 5'11", 195-pound junior playing the best football of his career and has helped turn No. 16 Georgia Tech (2--0), which upset Auburn on the road two weeks ago, into one of the season's early surprises. Though he is an unquestioned talent as both a runner and a passer and was the ACC rookie of the year in 2003, Ball often seemed lost in coach Chan Gailey's offense during his first two seasons, throwing more interceptions (29) than touchdown passes (26). Ball's biggest flaw was a tendency to force balls into coverage rather than take a sack or throw the ball away. In Tech's two victories this season, however, he's thrown three touchdown passes and just one interception. On Saturday, Gailey and Nix were so comfortable with their quarterback that they had him put the ball up a career-high-tying 47 times. "It's so much easier now," says Ball, who also ran for a nine-yard score. "Last year it was like, Give me the ball and I'll try to make something happen."
And why not? That approach had always worked, ever since Ball was a kid in Stone Mountain, Ga., where he was a 10-year-old star in the rec league at Redan Park. "He had as much confidence as I've ever seen in a young man," says Ron Gartrell, whose son, T.J., played with Ball at Redan and who later became Ball's coach at Stephenson High.
When Ball arrived at Georgia Tech he had no problem asserting himself as a leader. He is the only quarterback in school history to open his freshman season as the starter, and he has started 27 straight games. But his can-do attitude has sometimes produced wildly varying results. As a freshman he was carried off the field by delirious fans in his first home game after leading the Yellow Jackets to a 17--3 upset of 17th-ranked Auburn. A year later he was booed off the field after throwing two interceptions in Tech's final home game, a 30--10 loss to Virginia last November. "I kept telling him that when nobody was open, throwing it away was his best option," says Nix. "He didn't really see it that way."
Gailey sat Ball down last winter and challenged him to study the offense more diligently, then he declared the quarterback position open for competition. Ball prevailed in spring practice over redshirt freshman Taylor Bennett, and he spent the summer watching film and poring over the Yellow Jackets' playbook. "I'm not the fastest guy on the field anymore," says Ball. "I need to know what the hell's going on."
In the past Ball's uncertain command of the offense meant that the coaches often had to go with two-receiver sets to minimize his confusion. But against North Carolina, the Yellow Jackets passed on more than half of their plays, and eight receivers caught at least one pass. Ball's primary target is sophomore wideout Calvin Johnson, a sure-handed 6'4" prodigy with 4.4 speed and a 43-inch vertical leap, but on Saturday, Ball found senior Damarius Bilbo eight times for 131 yards and a touchdown.
With more cerebral play from their quarterback, the talented Yellow Jackets should improve on last season's 7--5 record. "We have a lot of weapons," says Nix. "The key isn't just Reggie anymore; it's the guys around him, too. Reggie's job is to make the play only when the play is there. He understands that now."
The Pac-10 is known for its wide-open passing attacks, and even though top-ranked USC and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart had the weekend off, the nine other starting quarterbacks in the conference put on quite a show.
|Joe Ayoob, Cal||17||27||271||4||1|
|Alex Brink, Washington State||15||23||202||3||0|
|Kellen Clemens, Oregon||24||40||275||2||0|
|Trent Edwards, Stanford||21||33||235||1||0|
|Sam Keller, Arizona State||35||56||461||4||0|
|Richard Kovalcheck, Arizona||19||31||255||2||1|
|Matt Moore, Oregon State||27||38||279||1||0|
|Drew Olson, UCLA||18||25||296||3||0|
|Isaiah Stanback, Washington||22||39||301||2||1|