‘A dogfight’ for single-digit jerseys at Georgia Tech

When former Georgia Tech safety Isaiah Johnson elected to redshirt for the 2013 season following an ACL tear in December 2012, the repercussions were many.

Tech would have a veteran safety returning for the 2014 season. After earning his undergraduate management degree in December 2013, Johnson was able to pursue and earn a master’s degree in building construction. Not least important, Johnson’s No. 1 jersey would stay off the market for another year.

“They’ve been waiting for me to leave,” Johnson said recently, levity in his voice. “When I came back, the (whole) year, people were walking around with the stink face.”

Spring practice is a cauldron of competition — players jockeying to earn starting jobs or move up the depth chart. A less noticeable challenge also is taking place in front of coach Paul Johnson — the battle to earn prized jersey numbers that have become available, including No. 1. Also open are Nos. 7 (formerly belonging to B.J. Bostic) and 10 (Synjyn Days). Tony Zenon’s No. 9 was handed to Georgia transfer A-back J.J. Green, and the No. 21 made regal by Tech great Calvin Johnson and last worn by Charles Perkins was awarded to early-enrollee B-back Quaide Weimerskirch.

“I know a lot of people are fighting for No. 1,” said cornerback Lynn Griffin, who would be quite pleased to upgrade from his No. 27 to No. 7. “That’s a dogfight right there.”

The attraction of wearing a single digit is a mixture of comfort, as many wore single digits in high school, and perhaps vanity. College football stars often have worn single digits, their standout play set off by the flair of a jersey number uncommon for their position.

Last season, the players recognized as the nation’s top wide receiver (Alabama’s Amari Cooper), linebacker (UCLA’s Eric Kendricks), defensive back (Louisville’s Gerod Holliman) and defensive end (Utah’s Nate Orchard), as well as the most versatile player (Washington’s Shaq Thompson) all wore single digits, as did Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

With a No. 2 on his chest, Griffin said, “I just felt better about myself as a player on the field in high school.”

Another aspirant for No. 7 is linebacker Terrell Lewis, who said he isn’t terribly hopeful, but “I think I’m going to try to get away from the 52.” Griffin said that he knew of at least two players hoping to win No. 1, defensive tackle Jabari Hunt-Days and Green, already in No. 9.

The demand for No. 1 is such that Paul Johnson has even mentioned it before the whole team.

“Coach Johnson said in the meeting when we came back from the bowl game, there’s a bunch of people wanting the uno, so whoever has the best spring is going to get it,” safety Jamal Golden said.

Golden won his No. 4 the same way. He wore No. 36 as a freshman, but earned a single-digit jersey in the spring of 2012 and took 4 through a three-jersey swap — B-back David Sims gave up No. 7 for No. 20, Bostic switched from 4 to 7 and Golden jumped in and took 4.

“I was happy,” Golden said. “It wasn’t like winning a championship or anything, but it was something that I worked hard for, and I was able to earn it.”

Isaiah Johnson will watch who inherits his No. 1. He himself tried to carry on the legacy of All-American safety Morgan Burnett, who immediately preceded Johnson in that jersey. The player who had No. 1 before Burnett, former Tech quarterback Reggie Ball, once left a note for Johnson in his locker, exhorting him to wear it with distinction.

“I hope it’s some guy I can relate to, can talk to him,” Johnson said. “I’m going to leave a note (in the locker), put a picture in there, too.”

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