ATLANTA — Jonathan Dwyer welcomes the challenge of filling Georgia Tech’s big void at running back.
With No. 11 Virginia Tech visiting Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday night, Dwyer and Jamaal Evans must replace Tashard Choice and top backup Rashaun Grant after both were injured in a 24-point win over Army on Oct. 20.
"It’s going to be something different for me," Dwyer said. "I’m excited to be a part of it and excited to play."
Coach Chan Gailey has all but ruled out any chance that Choice, the leading rusher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, will play with a sore right knee. Grant, who suffered a lower leg injury, is likely to miss the rest of the season.
Though Gailey indicated that Evans will start, Georgia Tech (5-3, 2-3 ACC) also needs production from Dwyer against a Virginia Tech defense that has few weaknesses.
Despite allowing No. 2 Boston College to score two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter and sneak out of Blacksburg last Saturday with a 14-10 victory, the Hokies are ranked in the top 12 nationally against the run, the pass and in average points allowed.
"I think he understands that he has talent and he has confidence in that talent, but at the same time he still has a lot to learn," Gailey said of Dwyer. "It was good for him to get some confidence and to have something good happen, and at the same time, I think it’s good for him not to have to go be ‘the guy’ right now."
A freshman from Marietta’s Kell High School, Dwyer has run 48 times for 281 yards and seven touchdowns. He and Evans, who has 89 yards rushing and two TDs on 21 attempts, have tried to pack in as much information as NCAA practice rules allow with running backs coach Curtis Modkins.
At least Dwyer and Evans know they’ll run behind an experienced offensive line. Center Kevin Tuminello, left tackle Andrew Gardner and right guard Matt Rhodes have started 34 straight games together. Fullback Mike Cox, whom teammates call "Bull," will play in his 42nd career game.
Dwyer and Evans also work as the Jackets’ return specialists on kickoffs.
"We have to listen to the game plan, understand the game plan, follow the offensive line, Bull or whoever else is the fullback," Dwyer said. "Be patient, have our vision, do the things that coach Modkins has taught us, and use our athletic ability that we are blessed with."
Unfortunately for the Yellow Jackets, Virginia Tech (6-3, 3-1) has allowed just 89.8 yards rushing per game to rank ninth in the nation. Gailey believes the Hokies’ defense is the deepest Georgia Tech will face this year, making it essential for the Jackets to have at least modest production from their passing attack.
Behind junior quarterback Taylor Bennett, Georgia Tech averages just 171.5 yards through the air, worst in the ACC and 107th nationally. Bennett has thrown just two touchdown passes, both of which Demaryius Thomas caught in losses at Virginia and Maryland.
"We’ve got to do better than OK," Gailey said. "We’ve got to get the ball down the field. We’ve got to try to make some big plays in the passing game, and this isn’t exactly the team where you say that we’re going to go out and work on that and make it happen because they are a very good football team overall, run and pass. If we can come out of the game with a pretty balanced attack, I’d be happy."
Rhodes takes pride in the Jackets’ ability to protect Bennett and backup quarterbacks Josh Nesbitt and Calvin Booker. Georgia Tech has allowed just five sacks this year, fewest in the ACC and third in the nation.
"This week, maybe more than any we’ve played so far, we have to give Taylor as much time as he needs to make his reads and find the receivers," Rhodes said. "It’s imperative against Virginia Tech because they do so many things well on defense."
If the passing game struggles, Gailey hopes the Jackets won’t have to lean too heavily on Dwyer.
"He had run the ball a ton out of (shotgun formations)," Gailey said of Dwyer’s high school career. "He hasn’t had to pass protect like we pass protect. There were several things that were a little bit new for him, but what he’s comfortable with, he’s extremely good at."