March 25, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
There is a certain kind of champing at the bit that goes on at this time of year among college football coaches and student-athletes, an over-excited anticipation of what’s possible, who has grown and who will emerge.
So, when Georgia Tech begins spring practice Monday, you’ll have to forgive head coach Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets for any sense of giddiness.
When you win six of your final seven games, including victory in the TaxSlayer Bowl over Kentucky, to finish 9-4 and 16 starters are returning (eight on offense, eight on defense), of course you’re jacked. Tech’s 16 returning starters are tied for 15th among all FBS squads and 10th among its Power 5 brethren.
When the Jackets begin building on Monday for a Labor Day kickoff against Tennessee in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, followed by six true home games and five on the road, they won’t start from scratch.
Sure, replacing starting quarterback Justin Thomas is a big deal, but the cupboard is far from bare.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Johnson said of the much-anticipated spring practice season. “We’ve got 16 starters returning from a year ago, but yet, at the same time, there’s a lot of key spots where there are going to be new faces. Any time you have the quarterback, a three-year starter, leave [spring practice takes on added importance] . . . I’m looking forward to it.”
Here’s a look at position groups heading into Johnson’s 10th season at Georgia Tech, where his teams have won more games (70) than every previous head coach other than William Alexander, Bobby Dodd and John Heisman, who coached 25, 22 and 16 seasons, respectively, on The Flats:
You don’t just run somebody out there under center and expect him to be another Justin Thomas.
Especially dynamic as a dual threat in Tech’s spread option offense, he authored many memorable moments for the Jackets, like when he was MVP of the Orange Bowl following the 2014 season in a victory over Dak Prescott and Mississippi State.
Rising redshirt junior Matthew Jordan isn’t exactly a newcomer, though, as he played in nine games last year and started and finished Tech’s upset win at Virginia Tech.
He rushed for 243 yards and six touchdowns and passed for 111 and a score as Thomas’ top backup last fall.
Beyond the game against the Hokies, he was generally a short-yardage specialist as he’s bigger than Thomas at 6-2, 208 pounds. He’ll begin spring practice No. 1, yet he’ll have company.
“[Junior] TaQuon Marshall has a chance to compete, as well as [redshirt freshmen] Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones,” Johnson said. “When we hit the end of [last season], we had a little scrimmage; Lucas and Jay were redshirting, and they’re dynamic. It’s going to be a good competition at quarterback.”
Nearly everyone returns here, led by sophomore Dedrick Mills, who enrolled early last year and won the starting B-back job.
He led the Jackets in rushing and touchdowns with 771 yards and 12 scores even though he played in just nine games. Backup Marcus Marshall transferred, but there are several candidates to spell Mills, including sophomores Kirvonte Benson and Quaide Weimerskirch.
The A-backs are deep, although Clinton Lynch is not expected to be part of spring practice as he returns from injury.
All he did last season was average 11.2 yards per carry and 30.6 yards per reception while scoring a combined eight touchdowns.
Ike Willis departs from this group, yet J.J. Green and Qua Searcy are back.
Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart, who both started every game last season, return to give the Jackets a nice combination of elusiveness and size.
Stewart goes 6-1, 199 and Jeune is 6-3, 212.
Sophomore Jalen Camp, who saw playing time as a true freshman last fall, will have the opportunity to earn even more with a strong spring.
Only one full-time starter is gone, but center Freddie Burden sure was a good one. Part-time starting tackle Eason Fromayan graduated, too.
Again, though, the Jackets won’t be starting from scratch.
Sophomore Kenny Cooper started in Burden’s place last season at Virginia Tech and played in several games. In all, sic offensive linemen that made starts last season are back for the Yellow Jackets. Guard Parker Braun is back after an outstanding freshman season and figures to be a lock as a starter. Will Bryan, Shamire Devine, Jahaziel Lee and Andrew Marshall, who all saw time in the starting lineup last season, figure to battle for the final three starting positions alongside Cooper and Braun.
“We got to replace [Burden], but Kenny Cooper played there,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to seeing all the guys. We played some freshman, especially on the offensive line. Parker, Jahaziel and Kenny Cooper, those three guys can be as good as anybody we’ve had here if they continue to grow.”
Patrick Gamble and Roderick Rook-Chungong wrapped up their eligibility, as did reserve Francis Kallon, but defensive end KeShun Freeman — a three-year starter — is back for his senior campaign, and so are Kyle Cerge-Henderson, Antonio Simmons and Anree Saint-Amour.
Brentavious Glanton and Desmond Branch return, too, and coaches are looking for contributions from some incoming freshmen as well.
“We’ve got to replace some guys on the defensive line,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the secondary intact and we’ve got to replace P.J.”
P.J. would be P.J. Davis, the undersized Tasmanian Devil-like linebacker who led Tech in tackles as a sophomore and junior before finishing second last season even though he missed two games with injury.
Chase Alford, who played in all 13 games, also graduated, but Tech will have experience to choose from at linebacker, starting with junior Brant Mitchell. He started every game at middle linebacker and was fourth on the team with 71 tackles.
“Brant Mitchell’s back, Terrell [Lewis] started some, Vic [Alexander], Tyler Cooksey is finally healthy, and we signed several [LBs],” Johnson explained. “We have some depth.”
Everybody who played meaningful minutes returns in the defensive backfield and that includes the first- and third-leading tacklers on the team in safeties Corey Griffin and A.J. Gray.
Step Durham and Lance Austin (the ACC’s leader in passes defended in 2016) return to their starting positions at cornerback, as does Lance’s twin brother, Lawrence Austin, at nickel back.
Even with all five starters returning, Johnson said, “I told them every position is up for grabs.”
While it only lost a total of six starters on offense and defense, Tech also has to replace two key performers on special teams — kicker Harrison Butker, the all-time leading scorer in school history, and punter Ryan Rodwell, who averaged 43.1 yards per boot during his impressive senior campaign.
Before highly touted recruits Brenton King (kicker) and Pressley Harvin III (punter) enter the mix this summer, returners Shawn Davis and Shea Underwood at kicker and Grant Aasen at punter will have a chance to get a leg up (pun fully intended) on the incoming competition this spring.
In all, as Johnson alluded last week, it will be an interesting spring on The Flats. Fans will get their opportunity to see the Jackets with their very own eyes on Friday, April 21 when Tech wraps up the spring with its annual Spring Game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.