All eyes on Tech football stars in ’09

Following last year’s surprising 9-4 season that led to a share of the ACC Coastal Division title and a berth in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, several players on Tech’s football team are earning recognition as the 2009 season approaches. Four Tech players—two on offense and two on defense—have been named to preseason watch lists for a variety of national college football awards for their respective positions.

Leading the way is the 2008 ACC Offensive Player of the Year, junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer. The Marietta, Ga. native took home the conference’s top postseason individual honor for offensive players last season after rushing for 1,395 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 200 carries, resulting in an average of just under seven yards per carry. His combination of power and speed in the ground game and his ability to perform at his best against Tech’s toughest opponents have earned him spots on national watch lists for two prominent awards. For the second straight year, Dwyer is one of 30 players on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which is awarded to the best running back in the nation. While he should be a contender for the award, he will face stiff competition from California’s Jahvid Best, Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter and Clemson’s C.J. Spiller, among others.

Dwyer has also been highlighted for a higher honor: the Walter Camp Football Foundation 2009 Player of the Year, which is given to the player voted the best in the country according to a panel of head coaches and Sports Information Directors. This year’s watch list includes the 2008 Camp Award winner, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who elected to return for his senior season.

Junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt is also in the running for his own position’s highest honor. He was named to the 33-player Davey O’Brien Award watch list for the nation’s best quarterback. Operating the Jackets’ run-heavy offense last season, Nesbitt did not put up the passing numbers of many of the other players on the list, completing 54 of 123 passes for 808 yards and two touchdowns. However, he did also rush for 693 yards and seven touchdowns, and as a first-year starter he improved throughout the season at making reads on option plays. He has several obstacles in his way for the award, though. All three of last season’s Heisman Trophy finalists—Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford, Texas’s McCoy, and Florida’s Tim Tebow—are quarterbacks and will return in 2009. Tebow and Bradford won the award in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

On the other side of the ball, Tech’s lone returning starter on the defensive line, junior end Derrick Morgan, is one of 153 candidates for the Rotary Club’s Lombardi Award. Created in honor of legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, the award goes to the best player in the nation among offensive linemen, defensive linemen, and linebackers.

Morgan was the lone non-senior starter on Tech’s defensive line last season, and he emerged as a strong pass rusher opposite the departed Michael Johnson. He finished the 2008 season with seven sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. With Johnson and defensive tackles Vance Walker and Darryl Richard gone, Morgan will have to take over as the leader of a young and relatively inexperienced defensive line. If he can match or improve his performance from last season, then he could easily thrust himself into serious contention for the Lombardi Award.

Another junior, rover Morgan Burnett, emerged as one of the nation’s best defensive backs last season and is on the early watch lists for two prestigious awards. He is in the running for the Jim Thorpe Award, the positional award for defensive backs and an honor no Tech player has ever received. Last season Burnett led the team with 93 tackles, seven interceptions, and eight passes defensed. His performance in 2008 and potential for 2009 earned him spot on the watch list for a higher honor: the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation’s best defensive player. He will face a tough road to winning the trophy, though, against a 62-player field that includes Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes, Tennessee safety Eric Berry, and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Three Jackets also earned notable preseason ACC honors. Dwyer was named the 2009 Preseason Player of the Year, and he, Burnett and junior wide receiver Demaryius Thomas earned spots on the preseason All-ACC team.