No. 27: Georgia Tech
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 8, 2012
Remember when the forward pass came to Georgia Tech? Now, it didn’t last long: four games, give or take. But the passing game’s arrival lent another supremely dangerous dimension to Paul Johnson’s already potent running attack, and for the season’s first month and change, the Yellow Jackets had as good an offense – as productive, explosive and frightening – as could be found in college football. But then it was gone, as the Jackets returned to recent tradition once the calendar turned to A.C.C. play. In a perfect world, perhaps, Johnson could keep the forward pass as a permanent part of his offensive philosophy from September through December. Or from September through January, should Johnson and Tech return to B.C.S. play. It wasn’t that long ago that the Jackets were taking on Iowa in the Orange Bowl: In 2009, Johnson’s second season with the program, Tech beat Clemson to earn that marquee date with the Hawkeyes. To get back there, Tech must be dangerous through the air not only during non-conference play but over 12 games – or 13, rather, if not 14.
Atlantic Coast, Coastal
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
at Virginia Tech
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
I’m not overly concerned about the offense, though Washington needs to pull ahead of all comers and take control under center. The offense will deliver, leaving the defense as the biggest question mark heading into the fall. Can a strong front seven offset some worries in the secondary? That’s the hope. Is this is a great team? Nope. But it’s a good team, one that is now completely comfortable in this offensive system, and that will help. Whether the defense is completely comfortable in the 3-4 should decide this team’s level of success. For now, seven wins is a very safe bet, and eight or more is very much in play.
In a nutshell Through the first half of the season, the talk of the A.C.C. might have been Georgia Tech, not Clemson. The Tigers won the war, even if the battle, an Oct. 29 date in Atlanta, again went the Jackets’ way. Tech crumbled over the heart of A.C.C. play, laying an egg against Virginia, again failing to do anything against the Hurricanes and, in a prime time affair in early November, officially losing the Coastal division to the Hokies. This was a better team than the six-win version from the year before, obviously, but there were several frustrating periods of inconsistency – these seemed to carry over from 2010, even if these inconsistent spasms didn’t kick in until October and November. The disappointing conclusion to conference play could have been salvaged with a win over Georgia to end the regular season and a bowl win, but alas: Tech dropped both games.
High point The best victory was the 31-17 win over Clemson in late October. There was no better stretch, however, than the 6-0 start, which included three straight wins to open A.C.C. action. The 3-0 start merely in conference play was the program’s best under Johnson.
Low point Another loss to Georgia, the Jackets’ third straight after topping the Bulldogs, 45-42, in 2008. And despite holding a 24-10 lead more than midway through the fourth quarter, the Jackets lost in overtime to Utah, 30-27, in the Sun Bowl.
Tidbit Tech simply needs the added dimension the passing game lends this offense to be a realistic A.C.C. contender. Since Johnson’s arrival in 2008, the program is 19-3 when averaging at least 9.0 yards per pass attempt. Conversely, the Jackets are 14-16 when averaging 8.9 or fewer yards per pass attempt. Not that the team hasn’t won big games on the back of the running attack alone: Georgia and Miami in 2008, both Clemson wins in 2009 and Clemson last fall, for example. But it’s obvious that the passing game makes Tech even more dangerous.
Tidbit (youth edition) Tech remains one of the youngest teams in the country. Last fall, the Jackets had only 11 seniors on the roster; this year, the Jackets have only 14 seniors, with only 10 on scholarship. In comparison, Tech’s roster features 25 juniors, 30 sophomores, 25 redshirt freshmen and 28 true freshmen.
Tidbit (quick-strike edition) The Jackets scored on its first offensive play from scrimmage three times last fall. They came over the year’s first three games, beginning with a five-yard touchdown run following a Western Carolina turnover in the opener. On Sept. 10, Tech scored on a 73-yard pass against Middle Tennessee State. A week later, against Kansas, it was via a 95-yard touchdown run, one of the team’s seven scoring drives of 90 or more yards.
Tidbit (magic number edition) Georgia Tech’s magic number: 31. Since Johnson took over in 2008, the Jackets are 22-1 when scoring more than 30 points. This included a 7-0 mark last season. The lone outlier came in the 2010 regular season finale, when the Jackets lost to Georgia, 42-34. On the other hand, Tech is 2-11 under Johnson when scoring less than 20 points.
Former players in the N.F.L.
24 RB Anthony Allen (Baltimore), S Morgan Burnett (Green Bay), CB Mario Butler (Dallas), RB Tashard Choice (Buffalo), WR Kevin Cone (Atlanta), FB Mike Cox (Atlanta), RB Jonathan Dwyer (Pittsburgh), LS Andrew Economos (Tampa Bay), LB Keyaron Fox (Houston), OG Andrew Gardner (Houston), LB Gary Guyton (Miami), DE Anthony Hargrove (Green Bay), TE Will Heller (Detroit), WR Stephen Hill (New York Jets), OG Cord Hoard (Baltimore), DE Michael Johnson (Cincinnati), WR Calvin Johnson (Detroit), S Dawan Landry (Jacksonville), DE Derrick Morgan (Tennessee), S Joshua Nesbitt (Buffalo), LB Daryl Smith (Jacksonville), WR Demaryius Thomas (Denver), DT Vance Walker (Atlanta), LB Philip Wheeler (Oakland).
Arbitrary top five list
Georgia’s AAAA Region 6A football programs
2. Stone Mountain.
Paul Johnson (Western Carolina ’79), 34-19 after four seasons with Yellow Jackets. It’s hard to imagine his first two years at Tech having gone any better: 20 victories, national rankings, a win over Georgia, an A.C.C. championship and a B.C.S. bowl birth. What must have been so frightening to the rest of the A.C.C. is that Georgia Tech was that good so soon; most expected it to take at least one season for the Jackets to learn the intricacies of the option offense, and another to begin to break in players best suited for the system. Where were all those who said that Johnson would fall flat, and that the antiquated option offense wouldn’t match up with a speedy defense? Well, those doubters had their day in 2010, as while Tech continued to lead the country in rushing the offense as a whole was far less explosive. In sliding to six wins, Johnson placed himself under some slight pressure to return the Yellow Jackets to the A.C.C. mix in 2011 – and Tech did bounce back, though not to the program’s previous high in 2008 and 2009. Johnson was extremely successful at both his previous stops, leading Georgia Southern to a 62-10 mark and two F.C.S. national championships from 1997-2001 and Navy to a 45-29 record from 2002-2007. His time at Navy was among the most successful in program history. He is one of five coaches in the academy’s history with at least five years’ experience with a winning percentage over 60.0 percent, and his stretch of five consecutive seasons with at least eight wins was the first in the program’s history. Johnson also illustrated he can make a quick turnaround; he inherited a Navy team coming off a two-year stretch of 1-20 ball, and after finishing 2-10 in his initial season went 43-19 the rest of his tenure. In 2003, Johnson led Navy to an 8-5 mark and a trip to the Houston Bowl, helping the Midshipmen become only the sixth team in F.B.S. history to go from a winless season to a bowl game in two years or less. Now that he’s faced some adversity in Atlanta, Johnson needs to show the sort of fortitude that led him to rebuild moribund Navy and, at least from 2008-9, lead the Yellow Jackets to the top of the conference.
Players to watch
It’s going to take a monumental effort during fall camp for sophomore Synjyn Days or Vad Lee to take the starting job away from senior Tevin Washington (1,652 yards passing, 11 touchdowns; 986 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns), the Jackets’ starting quarterback since the final month of the 2010 season. Washington’s now started 17 straight games, starting with those four game as Joshua Nesbitt’s injury replacement two years ago, and despite the gifts Days, Lee and true freshman Justin Thomas bring to the table, stands as Tech’s best dual-threat option heading into September. You saw some of Washington’s passing skills last fall, when he and this offense opened with a bang against the weak slice of an otherwise difficult schedule; his production as a passer tailed off precipitously from October on, but that Washington closed with a strong performance in the bowl loss against Utah gave him a much-needed dose of confidence heading into the offseason.
Let’s keep things in perspective. Is Washington the sublime athlete this offense could use at quarterback? No, not quite. Nor is he perfect, though there’s every reason to believe that he’s ready to play with much greater consistency as a senior. Washington can throw the football – that just can’t be Tech’s first resort, nor will it be except when Johnson sees something he likes from an opposing defense or if the Jackets trail late in games. What gives Washington the edge over Days and Lee is his simple familiarity with the offense, though that’s area where Days and Lee improve with each practice.
And he can move the sticks with his legs. While Johnson would prefer this not be the case, Washington led the team in both rushing and touchdowns a season ago. When needed, due to injuries, he carried Tech’s running game during A.C.C. play. And in a way, it would only be a good thing if Days – who I think would be the best option should Washington falter – grabs the starting role; it would mean that Johnson believes the sophomore gives this team its best chance at winning games. But barring injury or an unforeseeable collapse, this is Washington’s job. He’s not the best quarterback in the country; he’s just the best quarterback at Georgia Tech.
You will still see Days on the field in some capacity, whether at A-back, B-back or at wide receiver – he’s too good an athlete to keep under wraps. He’d be a nice fit at B-back, where his size would come in handy. In addition, giving Days some snaps at the position might provide some motivation for sophomore Charles Perkins (95 yards), who was a bit of a disappointment as a rookie. Perkins is currently the backup to junior David Sims (698 yards), who was Tech’s first starting B-back to fail to crack the 1,000-yard mark. While it’s the A-back position that supplies the flash, Tech does need its B-backs to do much of the heavy lifting between the tackles.
Injuries were an issue last fall at the A-back position. Sophomore B.J. Bostic missed all of last season with an arm injury – I’m pretty sure that Johnson has still not disclosed the entire nature of the injury. Senior Orwin Smith (615 yards, 11 touchdowns; 13 receptions for 306 yards) produced at a high clip, but he was slowed for much of the year by a toe ailment; he had surgery on his toe, costing him spring practice, but will be back for September. Three fairly unproven backs are fighting to join Smith in the starting lineup: junior Robert Godhigh – he held a bit of an edge after spring ball – and sophomores Tony Zenon (86 yards) and Deon Hill. A healthy Smith will give the Jackets much more explosiveness in the running game.
This will be the best line of Johnson’s tenure – and it’s not even close. It’s not merely about the returning experience, though that’s impressive: Tech brings back four full-time starters and fifth linemen who shared time at right tackle. It’s also about adequate depth, finally, and it’s been a long time coming. If I’m going to nitpick, one slight issue is that the depth is primarily composed of freshmen and sophomores, most of whom have yet to see the field in a meaningful capacity. But more than anything, the second level of this line includes players who have spent at least one full season in this system, and more than a few are entering their third season on campus.
The only position still up for debate is right tackle, where the Jackets lost Phil Smith, who transferred to U.C.F.; as noted during the Knights’ preview, Smith is eligible immediately. While you’d give junior Tyler Kidney the edge based on his starting experience – he made five starts last fall – he’s still a little too small to anchor the right side. That might make 295-pound sophomore Morgan Bailey the better option, with Kidney and redshirt freshman Bryan Chamberlain the top reserves at tackle. Everything else should remain the same: junior Ray Beno at left tackle, junior Will Jackson at left guard, junior Jay Finch at center and the line’s best, senior Omoregie Uzzi, at right guard. A few younger linemen may make a push for a starting job in August, especially on the left side, but I don’t think that Johnson is going to shake things up.
A light turned on for this defense early last season, lending some credence to the idea that the Jackets were ready to take a step forward in their second season running defensive coordinator Al Groh’s 3-4 system. Then: blackout. Tech’s defense took a substantial step back over the second half of last year, both against the run and the pass, and at no point was this more noticeable than on third down, when the Jackets’ inability to mount a consistent pass rush extended more drives than Johnson and Groh care to remember. Looking ahead to September, you can count on this defense making a bit of progress thanks to another season of experience serving under Groh. But the Jackets must, must, must do a better job getting to the quarterback.
One reason why this defense could improve: Tech is very deep at end. The Jackets return four ends with considerable game experience, beginning with senior Izaan Cross (32 tackles), a returning starter. While Cross is a great defender against the run, his 300-pound frame makes him a liability on passing downs – though it does give Tech the option to move him inside on third down. Hopefully, junior Emmanuel Dieke (20 tackles, 2.0 sacks) can bring some heat as Jason Peters’ replacement on the other side, should he get the starting nod. If not Dieke, the Jackets will go with either junior Euclid Cummings or junior Chris Crenshaw, with all four ends essentially sharing snaps throughout the season.
Tech has been waiting for senior T.J. Barnes to make an impact at nose tackle since moving into the 3-4 system two seasons ago. Barnes will get his shot this fall, when he replaces Logan Walls, and he’s already shed about 25 pounds in an effort to increase his mobility and overall conditioning. This is great: Barnes will be needed for more snaps than in the past, when he was a situational option, and will give the Jackets a very big, very strong interior lineman at the center of this defense. Again, I do think that Cross could be an effective tool at tackle on passing downs, when Barnes is useless.
Tech’s linebackers need only to look to the sidelines for inspiration. That’s where they’ll find Julian Burnett, last year’s leading tackler, whose playing career is likely over as a result of the neck injury he suffered in the bowl loss to Utah. The Jackets’ returning linebackers would be wise to emulate Burnett, not only for the way he ran amok along the second level but for his leadership qualities; the defense as a whole lost a leader, one whose value extended far beyond the totals he put up at inside linebacker.
In terms of a personnel move, Tech didn’t need to look far to find Burnett’s replacement. With sophomore Quayshawn Nealy (52 tackles, 2 interceptions) back after starting seven games as a freshman – and ending the season playing his best football – the Jackets can move junior David Drummond (44 tackles) back into the lineup to give Groh two experienced defenders in the middle. While Drummond won’t match Burnett’s production, both he and Nealy are only scratching the surface: Drummond will be in only his second season at linebacker after starting his career at B-back. Both move well in space, and should have room to operate if Barnes occupies linemen at nose tackle.
The star of this defense is junior outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu (59 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 6.0 sacks). He’s the only player with a proven ability to get pressure on the quarterback; he led the team in sacks last fall despite being the focus of attention, which bodes well for his ability to work in the backfield if end play improves. Junior Brandon Watts is the leading contender to replace Steven Sylvester on the other side, though he’s not the only option. If Tech wanted to get one or both into a larger role, it could move one of redshirt freshmen Anthony Harrell and Jabari Hunt-Days outside, though the latter is built to play in the middle.
The Jackets are also deep in the secondary. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless: Tech needs to settle on a pair of starting cornerbacks. You’d think that senior Rod Sweeting (56 tackles, 3 interceptions) and junior Louis Young (52 tackles) would retain their starting roles – especially Sweeting, an honorable mention all-A.C.C. pick last fall. But the staff seems set on getting junior Jamea Thomas (50 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 3 interceptions) into a starting role, and perhaps for good reason: Thomas produced when called upon last fall.
Based on how all three have fared on the field and during the spring, the starting pair come September will be Sweeting and Thomas, with Young serving as Tech’s third cornerback. Again, the competition is only good for business. At safety, the Jackets return one starter, junior Isaiah Johnson (78 tackles, 3 interception), and will replace Rashaad Reid with sophomore Fred Holton, who missed all of last season with an Achilles injury. This secondary isn’t going to dominate, but it could be one of the top four in the A.C.C. if the pass rush improves.
I like the fact that Tech is entering its third season running the 3-4, not to mention the depth at end and cornerback. This sort of depth, not often seen during Johnson’s tenure, will help the Jackets field its best defense under Groh. But don’t expect the moon: Tech is still searching for a pass rush, and it won’t get stops with consistency until it can improve on third down. Not to get too far ahead, but Virginia Tech, Virginia, Clemson, U.N.C. and Georgia are among the nation’s best third-down passing teams. It’s a serious concern.
It’s with some degree of excitement that Tech welcomed in… a special teams coordinator? Yes, David Walkosky, the first such coach of Johnson’s tenure, should help out Tech’s annually disappointing and underwhelming play on special teams. He’ll have his hands full, though the Jackets do return most of last season’s pieces. What Walkosky will strive for is far greater consistency out of junior kicker Justin Moore and junior punter Sean Poole, but it’s his potential impact in the return game – both on Tech’s side and in coverage – that Tech should see the biggest difference.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver Tech does not return one receiver with a career reception under his belt. That’s a concern, even if the Jackets remain run-focused. Instead of experience, what you see when you look at Tech’s stable of receivers is length, athleticism and potential, especially among those receivers added over the last two or three recruiting classes. While Johnson and his staff are still working out a two-deep, the likely starters for the season opener will be senior Chris Jackson, a former Alabama transfer, and sophomore Jeff Greene. While neither held any role in the offense, Jackson and Greene, along with sophomore Darren Waller, did help the Jackets on special teams – Waller in particular; he’ll block a kick or punt this season.
Jackson, Greene, Waller and junior Jeremy Moore are the Jackets’ top four at receiver, followed by three freshmen who shouldn’t see much time. Again, Johnson isn’t looking for 50-plus receptions; he’s looking for solid blocking on the outside, most of all, but also the ability to go up and get deep balls down the sideline and over the middle of the field. One thing you like about this entire group is its length: Tech’s top receivers are all 6’0 or more – as are most of the reserves, outside of two freshmen – and could present mismatches against smaller defensive backs. One more thing these receivers must do: catch the football. They’ll get open, if only because defenses bite on the option; just look the ball in, catch it with your hands away from your body, and run like crazy.
Game(s) to watch
Well, this is one way to start a season. At least Tech will know by the second week of the season whether it’s in the Coastal driver’s seat, ahead of Virginia Tech, or whether it needs to mount a furious run over the rest of the season to catch up with and then pass the Hokies. The year also contains two very intriguing non-conference duels: Georgia, of course, but also B.Y.U., which comes to Atlanta in late October. While the Jackets host Virginia and Miami – the latter a team that has recently had their number – their three toughest A.C.C. opponents come on the road: Virginia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina. This is not an easy schedule.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Three positives leap out when looking at Georgia Tech. The first is this team’s overall depth, which is far higher than it has ever been since Johnson took over in 2008. You see solid, proven depth almost across the board, with the exceptions of wide receiver, nose tackle and safety. In some places, the depth is outstanding: I could say quarterback, even if Days and Lee are a bit raw, but certainly at end, cornerback and definitely the offensive line, which will be the best of Johnson’s tenure. A second positive is the Jackets’ experience; again, the only position where this is lacking is at wide receiver, where the offense needs to find a pair of steady targets. Finally, there this: Johnson being positive – not just positive, but overly optimistic about his team’s chances; to say this has been surprising would be an understatement.
Based the team’s improved depth and experience, I do think that Tech should be taken seriously as a contender for both a national ranking and the A.C.C. title. Whether the Jackets can achieve the latter hinges entirely on the season opener; a loss there effectively ends this team’s chances in the Coastal, seeing that it would likely need to win every conference game the rest of the way to avoid losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Hokies. Tech’s issues are obvious: the passing game must click throughout, not just during non-conference play; the receiver corps needs one option to step up; Smith must remain healthy and Sims needs to deliver more production; Barnes needs to give Tech 30-40 snaps per game; and the defense as a whole must deliver a far better pass rush.
The good news is that Tech is close to breaking out. I can see the signs on this roster, in the fact that this team is still quite young despite its depth and experience, and I like the fact that it’s now-or-never time for this defense – if it’s going to work with Groh, this will be the year. But while I like Tech to win eight games during the regular season, I have my reservations about how it will fare against the four very good teams on this schedule. You simply cannot give Logan Thomas, Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray time to operate in the pocket; the Jackets must be more disruptive. Until the pass rush improves and the defense comes together, Tech can’t be viewed as one of the top three teams in the A.C.C. – instead, I have them in fourth overall, second place in the Coastal division.
Dream season The year begins with a win over Virginia Tech, setting the table for a Coastal championship, and ends with a win over Georgia. It doesn’t get much better than that. The Yellow Jackets head into the A.C.C. title game at 11-1, 7-1 in conference play – just for the sake of argument, let’s say that the loss comes at Clemson.
Nightmare season Losses to the Hokies and Bulldogs sandwich a disappointing 6-6 regular season. Tech finishes tied with Miami for fourth place in the Coastal division.
In case you were wondering
Where do Georgia Tech fans congregate? For independent message boards, check out BBuzzOff.com (“A No Holds Barred Discussion of Georgia Tech Sports”) and Sting Talk. Recruiting coverage can be found at GoJackets.com and Jackets Online. For additional information, visit From The Rumble Seat, Barrel of Rum and the Web site of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Georgia Tech’s all-name nominee RB Robert Godhigh.
Through 98 teams 395,946.
Who is No. 26? Of all the head coaches in the history of tomorrow’s program, 71.4 percent have or had a last name that began or begins with one of the first 13 letters of the alphabet. Of those who have or had won at least 50 percent of their games with the program, 75.0 percent have or had a last name that began or begins with one of the first 13 letters of the alphabet.
Tags: A.C.C., Al Groh, Chris Jackson, Darren Waller, David Drummond, David Sims, David Walkosky, Emmanuel Dieke, Georgia Tech, Isaiah Johnson, Izaan Cross, Jamea Thomas, Jeff Greene, Jeremiah Attaochu, Omoregie Uzzi, Orwin Smith, Paul Johnson, Quayshawn Nealy, Rod Sweeting, Synjyn Days, T.J. Barnes, Tevin Washington
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