Aug. 5, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
The premium word Saturday at Georgia Tech’s “media day,” was depth.
Head coach Paul Johnson used it in a general reference to his team, spoke specifically of having more capable players on his offensive line than in his previous four seasons on the Flats, said that because of sheer numbers and talent at A-back, “I’m not worried about that position,” and he even suggested that defensive coordinator Al Groh has more to work with on his defensive line than in his first two seasons running the Tech D.
When entering a season perhaps a shade short on marquee skill position players on offense, where A-back deluxe Orwin Smith is the only Yellow Jacket to presently fit that description, it figures to be a good thing a squad may be considered to be deep in so many spots.
This doesn’t mean front-line, All-ACC players will not emerge at any positions, of course, but without the luxury of counting on that being the case, having a lot of quality backups is quite the backup plan.
In football, it so often starts up front and Tech appears more solid there than in years.
Senior guard Omoregie Uzzi, who considered opting for the NFL, is on the Outland Trophy watch list. He’s started 25 college games. Fellow guard Will Jackson, a junior, has started 22. Senior center Jay Finch has started 14, and is on the Rimington Trophy watch list.
That’s a pretty solid core.
Ray Beno (12 starts) and Tyler Kidney (six) were in the three-man tackle rotation last season, and redshirt sophomore Morgan Bailey — who has battled injuries — is considered to have a shot at not only cracking that rotation but starting in it if he can stay out of the trainer’s room.
Sophomore Shaq Mason started a game last season, and played in several games. Backup center Nick McRae is a senior, who started two games and played a bunch. Trey Braun was impressive enough last year that the coaching staff flirted with using him as a true freshman.
“It’s huge. I was thinking about it the other day. You look at the first team, and all those guys have started games,” Johnson said. “We’ve got probably four or five guards we could play, and same thing at tackle. Morgan Bailey, if he can stay healthy, he looks the part. I think we’ve improved ourselves.”
Said Uzzi, “We’ve got a lot of guys who have played a lot of football. Guys were excited to come to camp this year, which seems different to me because usually people are like, ‘Ah; we got to get through this.’ This year, guys are trying to get better and take it to the next level.”
Smith figures to be the man on offense, and he’s healthy after surgery on a bum toe.
Sophomore Synjyn Days is going to play somewhere, perhaps at A-back opposite Smith. He would not be alone there as Johnson shuttles players at that position, and Deon Hill and Robert Godhigh came out of spring ball looking solid. B.J. Bostic returns from injury, Tony Zenon is in the mix, and Broderick Snoddy’s speed cannot be ignored.
David Sims will be the top B-back again with Charles Perkins and converted defensive back Zach Laskey behind him. Perhaps Days will work there? He’s not quite as thick as perhaps the staff would like, but he sure seems to run with the right degrees of lean and anger.
Many of the top candidates to replace them look a lot like some of their predecessors. They’re big.
Before getting into who the defense has back, a look at who Groh will not have.
It might take a magic wand to replace inside linebacker Julian Burnett, who led the Jackets in tackles each of the past two seasons. He’d be back this season for a senior run, but suffered a neck injury in the Sun Bowl that likely ended his career.
“Clearly, he was one of the leaders on the team. He was one of our best players; he might have been the best player,” Johnson said. “So it will be hard to fill that role, but that’s what happens. You have to move on.”
Daniel Drummond, Quayshawn Nealy and redshirt freshman Jabari Hunt-Days are in the mix for the two inside spots. Drummond and Nealy each started about half the season last fall beside Burnett. Anthony Harrell, a redshirt freshman, merits mention as well. Johnson’s description of him in the Tech media guide is worthy of additional publication.
“We refer to him as a heat-seeking missile,” Johnson said. “He just likes to hit somebody. It’s not always the right people or the right spot, but he’s going to hit somebody on every play. If we can kind of get him pointed in the right direction, I think he’s got a bright future.”
Junior Brandon Watts was an inside linebacker, but he’s locked down an outside spot opposite Jeremiah Attaochu, who is on the Lombardi Award watch list. Watts is a rocket in pads. Malcolm Munroe, Nick Menocal and Tyler Marcodes are working at it. Attaochu may in many ways fill Burnett’s void.
Up front, the Jackets will have two 300-pounders in senior nose tackle T.J. Barnes (6-7, 340) and end Izaan Cross (6-4, 300), and Emmanuel Dieke (6-6, 270) will be at the other end. Juniors Euclid Cummings and Chris Crenshaw and sophomore Anthony Barnes are in the mix at end. Perhaps this will be the season where Shawn Greene can beat the injury bug and help at nose tackle.
Cross relishes the idea of a rotation that runs deeper than that Groh was comfortable using last season.
“Shawn Greene has come a long way,” Cross said. “[Depth] allows everybody on the D-line to play faster because you know over time me and T.J. or anybody playing the whole game there are going to be plays where we can’t give our all because we’re going to be exhausted. If you have somebody who is fresh who can come in, it helps the D-line out.”
Tech has a lot of players and a lot of talent in the back.
Safety Isaiah Johnson, utility man Jemea Thomas, and cornerbacks Rod Sweeting and Louis Young have a combined 43 starts between them, and redshirt freshman safety Fred Holton and sophomore Jamal Golden are going to play. Holton, in fact, may dazzle at safety. There also are some younger players likely to emerge.
“I think this is the most depth we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Johnson, the coach, said.
“Playing with guys you’ve been around for two years in a system that you’ve been in for two years . . . there are a lot of little things that people don’t notice like communication . . . it’s a lot easier when you know what guys are going to do on a certain play,” he said. “The maturity level is a lot better. This is a very mature team. Guys have been here for a while. They understand where we can be as a team.”
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