April 3, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
The 2017 season opener versus Tennessee at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is five months away to the day come Tuesday and Georgia Tech football fans might be more antsy and impatient if they were seeing the Yellow Jackets now. There’s good news in spring practice.
On Saturday, the Jackets knocked each other around for the first time in full pads this spring. Coming out of that practice, it sounds like the Jackets have two big things going for them — bushels of returning players, who helped win six of the final seven games last season to finish 9-4, and sparks flying from newcomers.
Summary statement: Tech looks to have more options than it has in years ahead of the Sept. 4 — Labor Day — season opener, when the Jackets will play the Vols for the first time in 30 years.
With eight starters back on each side of the ball, head coach Paul Johnson –never one to blow fake white smoke out of any chapel — was downright cheery when, after three practices of glorified touch football, the Jackets did full-on football with a bit of 11-on-11 work in Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“I thought the energy was good,” he reported. “Guys were flying around. Like always, there was some good, some bad; so it was a good first start.”
At the hotspot, rising redshirt junior Matthew Jordan made noise in limited scrimmage action at quarterback, where back-filling for three-year starter Justin Thomas is considered paramount.
He had a 20-yard run and with style that reminds more of former Tech quarterback/battering ram Joshua Nesbitt. The likely presence under center of a bigger lad figures to orient the offense to more center-of-the-field thrust.
“Last year, I had to prepare every game like I was the starter and I’m doing the same this year,” he said. “Obviously, me and Justin are two totally different people. We have two totally different styles.”
With a week of spring ball in the books, let’s revisit each position group, starting right there.
Different in body type and skill set, Jordan carries the title of presumptive starter with a resume similar to that of Thomas, who in his first season at the helm, led the Jackets to an 11-3 record and earned MVP honors in the Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State.
Both players redshirted as freshmen after high-school careers that saw them play multiple positions. Thomas became a starter the season after playing in 10 games as a reserve and completing 9-of-17 passes. Jordan has played in 14 games over the past two campaigns, completing 8-of-18 passes.
Jordan has rushed 102 times for 404 yards (4.0-yard average) and eight touchdowns. In his lone season as a backup, Thomas rushed 33 times for 234 yards (7.1) and scored twice. Most of Jordan’s work has been in short-yardage situations, where he spelled Thomas last season.
At 6-feet-2, 210 pounds, Jordan’s bigger than Thomas, though not as quick or fast. In one start last season, he led the Jackets to a 30-20 upset win at No. 18 Virginia Tech, rushing 32 times for 121 yards and scoring twice.
No wonder rising sophomore guard Parker Braun expects more of the same. The Jackets bludgeoned the Hokies for 309 yards on the ground and Jordan showed Thomas-like wheels on a 53-yard score.
“I’m looking forward to that,” Braun said. “What we did last year to Virginia Tech, we’re going to do every game. A lot more mid-line [option] . . . “
Jordan has more company than Thomas did last season.
Junior TaQuon Marshall played in two games last season and the converted A-back is elusive. Both Lucas Johnson (6-3, 200) and Jay Jones (6-0, 175) redshirted a year ago.
Marshall had a 15-yard scoring run on Saturday, Johnson completed a couple long passes and scored on a short run and Jones also found paydirt on a 15-yard haul.
“(Jay) did some good things and so did Lucas Johnson,” the head coach said. “TaQuon … all those guys played well at times.”
Starting center Freddie Burden is gone and frequent starting tackle Eason Fromayan left after graduating with a year of eligibility remaining.
Yet the Jackets have considerable experience, including guard Braun — who started six games — and upperclassmen guards Will Bryan and Shamire Devine.
Starting tackle Andrew Marshall is back, as are rising sophomores Kenny Cooper, who started at center at Virginia Tech, and tackle Jahaziel Lee, who started three games.
Johnson went out of his way last season to compliment the three freshmen as an especially talented group of greenhorns.
Plus, “I’m really impressed with the freshmen class that we have coming in 2017,” Braun said. “I think we have some really good athletes there.”
Rising sophomore Dedrick Mills led the Jackets in rushing (771 yards) and touchdowns (12) last season, despite missing four games. Kirvonte Benson and Quaide Weimersmirch are vying for the role as his primary backup.
“Kirvonte did some good things early, [had a] couple nice runs,” Johnson said. “Dedrick, we didn’t play him much.”
Tech fans should be excited that redshirt junior A-back Clinton Lynch returns to a group with almost everybody back from the 2016 rotation, other than graduated senior Ike Willis.
Lynch averaged 11.2 yards on 37 carries and 30.6 yards on 16 receptions while scoring eight combined touchdowns.
Starters Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart are back and so is sophomore Jalen Camp, who made the travel squad as a true freshman last season but didn’t see a ton of action on offense.
Camp and his fellow youngsters might be generating the most buzz.
Redshirt freshmen Stephen Adolphus (6-5, 200) and Jair Hawkins-Anderson (6-0, 187), whose father, Willie, was a four-time Pro Bowl player with the NFL’s Bengals, will get shots.
“I’m excited,” Jordan said. “Stephen’s a big guy and Jair might be one of the fastest guys on the team.”
The Jackets’ biggest personnel losses are here, as tackles Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon and end Rod Rook-Chungong have departed.
Tech has more experience outside than inside, as seniors KeShun Freeman — a three-year starter — and Antonio Simmons are the odds-on-favorites to start on the ends.
Simmons (6-3, 241) had a solid season off the bench last year with a team-high 12 quarterback hurries. He’s probably going to play all downs next season.
“That’s what I came to college for, not to be a third-down guy,” he said. “I’m excited . . . I think my production can go way up more than it [was last year]. I feel like I’m going to produce at a high level.”
In the middle, sophomore Kyle Cerge-Henderson, the returning starter who played in all 13 games last season, redshirt sophomore Brentavious Glanton, who played in six with a sack, and sophomore Brandon Adams (6-2, 349) lead the race to man the middle.
Desmond Branch has also moved to the meaty part of the D-line.
“I think Brandon Adams made a lot of plays,” Johnson said after Saturday’s practice. “Jordan Woods is playing defensive end. Des is playing inside; he’s a little more athletic maybe, a little quicker.”
There’s no easy way to replace speedy, spirited linebacker P.J. Davis, who led Tech in tackles as a sophomore and as a junior, and might’ve as a senior if he didn’t miss two games. Frequent player Chase Alford is finished too.
But Davis’ replacement, Vic Alexander, is back. So are Brant Mitchell, who finished last season fourth on the team with 71 tackles in 13 starts, and Terrell Lewis, who played in every game.
Redshirt sophomore David Curry is in the mix as well.
“Other than Patrick Gamble and P.J., they’re about all back [on defense],” said Johnson. “Brant played the other linebacker and Terrell played a lot [last season]. Vic played some. The secondary is all back.”
Everybody has indeed returned, as starters Lance and Lawrence Austin, Step Durham, A.J. Gray and Corey Griffin are all back for more football. Senior safety Shaun Kagawa, who had interceptions during 7-on-7 drills on Wednesday and Friday of last week and added third pickoff during Saturday’s 11-on-11 work, will likely play as well.
Tech coaches, though, want to grow rather than rest on experience.
“You look to build depth everywhere; that’s what spring practice is for,” Johnson said. “You evaluate guys and try to put them in position to succeed.
“You want to put them in stress situations to see how they react so you know what’s going to happen when they play. We’ve got a lot of work to do. As long as the effort is there, that’s all you can ask.”
The graduation of kicker Harrison Butker, Tech’s all-time leading scorer, and punter Ryan Rodwell leave holes.
Before highly-touted recruits Brenton King (kicker) and Pressley Harvin III (punter) join the fray this summer, returnees Shawn Davis and Shea Underwood, at kicker, and punter Grant Aasen continue to have legs up (and the pun continues to be intended).
Three weeks of spring ball remain and we’ll continue to learn more as final 11 practices unfold, culminating with the annual Spring Game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Friday, April 21 (7 p.m.).