No Choice but to respect Georgia Tech's running game

Tashard Choice knows how to keep his blockers fat and happy.

Every now and then, Georgia Tech's standout tailback surprises his five starting offensive linemen, tight end and fullback with a mouth-watering dish from his mom's kitchen.

Near the end of last season, Rosa Hamm whipped up a batch of chicken pot pies for her son's teammates. Rumor has it that some of the Yellow Jackets' offensive linemen who live together were stealing from each other's portions.

"They're probably the best things I've ever tasted," Georgia Tech left guard Matt Rhodes said. "Hopefully, we can block well for him this year so it becomes a weekly tradition."

Ms. Hamm might want to start heating up her oven. After a sensational 2006 season, during which he led the ACC in rushing with 1,473 yards, Choice has gotten off to an equally good start this season while leading Georgia Tech to a No. 15 national ranking and a 2-0 record heading into Saturday's primetime showdown with Boston College (2-0, 2-0 ACC) in Atlanta (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).

In about five quarters of action, Choice has rung up a conference-leading 153-yard rushing average while extending his school-record run of consecutive 100-yard games to nine.

That might come as a surprise to the voters who failed to make Choice a first-team All-ACC selection last season, even though he had the third-most productive season by a running back in league history. (Virginia's Thomas Jones ran for an ACC-record 1,798 yards in 1999. North Carolina's Don McCauley had 1,720 yards in 1970.)

Clemson's James Davis (149 votes) and Virginia Tech's Branden Ore (134) were picked as the ACC's first-team running backs last season. Choice,
with 103 votes, wasn't even close -- though neither Davis nor Ore came within 300 yards of his rushing total.

If you thought that slight didn't annoy the outspoken and fiercely competitive Choice, you would be wrong.

"That was one of the biggest signs of disrespect that I could have received," said Choice, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior from Riverdale, Ga. "Not just for me, but for the linemen, the coaches, everybody. It's just total disrespect. Those guys [Davis and Ore] had a great season last year, but I don't think none of them had a better season than me."

Part of the reason Choice may not have gotten his due was the presence of receiver Calvin Johnson, the
ACC Player of the Year. With Johnson hogging the spotlight with his sensational ability and acrobatic catches, there was little room for anyone else.

Choice said he heard people say "you can't do this without Calvin," which was part of the reason he decided to return for his senior season instead of opting to enter the NFL draft.

"Last year, we had Calvin and a lot of attention went to him and to [quarterback] Reggie Ball," Choice said. "A lot of people overlooked me, but that was OK. This year, I'm the focal point of the offense.

"It's different. A lot of attention is going to me, which brings a lot of responsibility. But I'm all for it."

That was one of the biggest signs of disrespect that I could have received. Not just for me, but for the linemen, the coaches, everybody. It's just total disrespect. Those guys [Davis and Ore] had a great season last year, but I don't think none of them had a better season than me.

--Tashard Choice

Choice certainly hasn't appeared flustered by the load he's putting on himself. In Georgia Tech's season opener against Notre Dame, he ran for a career-high 196 yards and two touchdowns as the Yellow Jackets blew out the Irish 33-3 and won in South Bend, Ind., for the first time since 1959.

Last week against Samford, Choice ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries, but was removed from the game before the end of the first quarter and did not return in the 69-14 rout.

Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said Choice would have gained 200 yards if he had kept him in the game a little longer.

"I went to him and said that we'd like to play some of the other guys," Gailey said. "I was going to say that I was all for the individual-type awards and things like that, but he stopped me and said, 'Coach, we're trying to win a championship. If I need to sit to play some of these other guys, then great.'"

Chances are Choice won't be doing too much sitting Saturday against Boston College. The Yellow Jackets, a preseason pick to finish second behind Virginia Tech in the ACC's Coastal Division, began the season unranked but have moved up to No. 15 in both major polls. The Eagles are 19th in the coaches' poll.

"We'll get a chance again this Saturday to prove ourselves," Choice said. "We're ranked 15th right now, but that doesn't mean anything on Saturday. We have to prove we can win big games to keep it going."

Georgia Tech has steadily improved since Choice arrived in Atlanta as a transfer from Oklahoma in January 2005. Choice spent his freshman season with the Sooners backing up Heisman Trophy finalist Adrian Peterson, but became eligible immediately at Georgia Tech after the NCAA granted him a waiver of the one-year residency requirement because of a family hardship.

Choice said his departure from Oklahoma had nothing to do with Peterson's presence, saying that if he had stayed it "would have been one of the most dynamic backfields in college football."

Choice made Georgia Tech's backfield plenty dynamic by himself last season. He got off to a slow start, but was virtually unstoppable the rest of the way, running for more than 100 yards in nine of the Yellow Jackets' final 10 games. He became a workhorse, too, carrying a school-record 297 times. Only four running backs in Division I-A carried the ball more often than Choice.

This season, Choice has started where he left off. His 153 yards per game ranks ninth nationally and he's gaining 8.27 yards per carry, a figure that's surpassed by only four players.

"The offensive line came to me this year and said they really want me to get 1,800 yards or better," Choice said. "If we do that, that means we're going to win a lot of games this year."

It also means Choice will be much harder to ignore. But most importantly, it will keep Choice's blockers fat and happy.

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.