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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Jackets’ Spring Centers on WR, NT, QB

Christening spring practice today: Georgia Tech. Last seen blowing a second half lead in the Sun Bowl against Utah, the Yellow Jackets open the spring with two primary concerns, one on each side of the ball, and one looming question. What does this program need to do in order to return to the 2008-9 level — you know, playing for the A.C.C. crown and a B.C.S. berth? Some strides were made last fall, when the Jackets added two wins to a disappointing 6-7 finish in 2010, but to reclaim its spot atop the Coastal division, the Jackets need to find a new weapon in the passing game and a new anchor in the middle of the defensive line.

And find a way to beat Virginia Tech in the season opener. That’s one way to start the year: Georgia Tech has eased into play with an F.C.S foe in each of the last four years, saving the Hokies for October and November.

On one hand, playing the Hokies in September — in the first game of the season, actually — might allow the Jackets to overcome a conference loss. A defeat puts the Jackets behind the eight ball, but the team would have seven A.C.C. games to make up ground.

On the other hand, a win puts the Jackets in the early driver’s seat. Head-to-head tiebreakers are key, as we know, and with a win the Jackets would merely have to hold serve to earn a spot in the A.C.C. title game. That ignores Virginia, for example, which could make its own run, but for now, the Hokies should be considered the Coastal favorite.

That game remains five-plus months in the future, though Tech — both Georgia and Virginia — can’t be faulted for looking ahead at the potentially season-altering opener. But for now, as Georgia Tech prepare for the first practice of the spring, Paul Johnson and the Jackets have some issues to address.

1. Needed: A game-changer at receiver. Tyler Melton is gone, as expected. So is Stephen Hill, which was slightly less expected. Or not expected at all, this time a year ago. But Hill, who has blazed up draft charts after a blazing 40 time at the N.F.L. Combine, put together a breakout junior season: 28 receptions for 820 yards and 5 touchdowns. The Jackets have been here before, and you can see why there’s some nervousness surrounding the receiver corps.

The program lost receiver Demaryius Thomas a year ahead of schedule in 2009, and the offense lost a large degree of its big-play ability. The running game remained potent, but Thomas, along with then-starting quarterback Josh Nesbitt, gave the offense a deep threat in the passing game. In order to avoid a similar slide, the Jackets need at least one rising underclassman to pick up the slack.

So who’s next? No other players — not receivers, but any players — will be under greater scrutiny this spring than sophomore Jeff Greene and redshirt freshman Darren Waller, two big-bodied targets who will get first crack at stepping into Hill’s shoes. Their youth is troubling, but inexperience is an issue throughout the receiver corps.

The only two wideouts who made a catch last fall were Hill and Melton; the only returning receiver with a career grab is senior Daniel McKayhan, who made two receptions in 2010. With so few game-tested options, Greene and Waller will have every chance to grab starting roles. Size isn’t a question: both come in around 6’4. Neither is athleticism. Whether either can produce, on the other hand, is a concern.

2. It’s time for senior T.J. Barnes to reach his potential. Barnes has the size to anchor the middle of Georgia Tech’s 3-4 defense at nose tackle, and now, after his apprenticeship behind Logan Walls, the experience needed to grab a full-time starting role. Whether Barnes, who is listed at 6’7 and 347 pounds, can live up to the promise that’s accompanied most of his career is likely the defining factor for this year’s defense.

It’s year three for Al Groh as Johnson’s defensive coordinator. In short, it’s time for Groh’s defense to turn a corner. Not that improvement hasn’t been made: the defense, thanks in large part to a stronger performance against the run, moved into the top five in the A.C.C. in total defense in 2011. But for the Jackets to challenge the Hokies for the Coastal division, the defense needs to do an even better job controlling the line of scrimmage.

Hence the importance of Barnes seamlessly replacing Walls at nose tackle. If Barnes does play at an all-conference level — something he is capable of doing — keep an eye on the trickle-down effect. Barnes clogs up the middle of the line; that frees up linebackers Quayshawn Nealy and Jeremiah Attaochu to make plays on the second level.

The linebackers can move freely; the pass rush improves. The Jackets do a better job getting to the quarterback — get pressure like Georgia gets pressure, though that’s a painful comparison; the secondary, deep and experienced, forces turnovers in the passing game. It can happen, but it all starts with Barnes. He’s the key.

3. Is Tevin Washington’s job secure? You’d think so. He led the Jackets in rushing (986 yards) and touchdowns (14). He cracked the 100-yard mark four times during A.C.C. play; Tech went 3-1 in those games. Washington threw for 1,652 yards, the second-most by a Tech quarterback under Johnson’s direction, though a significant portion of that yardage came in September.

And he’s experienced. Though last fall marked his first year as a full-time starter, Washington did replace an injured Nesbitt for the final five games of the 2010 season. If nothing else, Washington’s game experience distances him from his spring competition: Vad Lee, Synjyn Days, true freshman Dennis Andrews and Tim Byerly. Another true freshman, Justin Thomas, arrives in the fall.

Lee and Days, two past, present and future rivals for the starting job, will provide Washington with his sternest test. Andrews, who enrolled early, is likely a fairly long shot to leapfrog to the top of the depth chart. Byerly, who transferred from Middle Tennessee State, has some work to do in order to land playing time.

In Andrews’ favor is the fact that Johnson’s offense is not the most complicated in college football — it’s far from simple, but it’s certainly possible for a true freshman to grasp its intricacies early in the process. Lee and Days are seasoned, with Days last year’s backup, but don’t ignore the potential for Andrews, should he be ready, to steal some snaps.

But it’s Washington’s job, despite any remarks to the contrary. Not that Tech isn’t looking to push its incumbent starter, but Lee or Days would need to show some great improvement in order to move Washington into a secondary role. In all likelihood, the Jackets’ quarterback competition is for the chance to be Washington’s backup.

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Comments

  1. GTWrek says:

    It appears that Burnett’s career is over if this is accurate:

    http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/football/news?slug=ys-georgia_tech_spring_football_qb_search_032412

    Paul: He would be more plugged into the daily dealings, as someone who writes for Tech’s Rivals.com affiliate, but that’s the first I’ve seen from that sort of legitimate source about it ending his career. It was a pretty significant injury, however.

    Paul: From the coach’s mouth (http://blogs.ajc.com/georgia-tech-sports/2012/03/26/burnetts-career-appears-over/). “Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson did not close the door completely on linebacker Julian Burnett’s playing career. But Burnett’s neck injury, suffered in the Sun Bowl Dec. 31, appears to have ended his career.”

  2. [...] Paul Myerberg’s spring practice look at Georgia Tech comes this observation about how the Jackets need somebody to step up at nose tackle this season: [...]

  3. GTWrek says:

    Darn. I was holding out some small hope that the rivals article was off base. It was the first time we in the GT community had heard of his career ending. I hope at a minimun he sticks around to finish his degree.

    Looking forward to the project that shall not be named.

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