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No Warm and Fuzzys This Spring

Jan. 7, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Paul Johnson sat a spell with chroniclers Friday for the final time with the 2010 Georgia Tech football team as a topic. He looked relaxed, or maybe relieved.

Between his answers to our questions, some obvious observations and some snooping, I’ve come up with thoughts. Some are plain, some not.

# That team would’ve been better than 6-7 if it hadn’t won the ACC Championship last season, nor had lost four juniors to the NFL. Tech had what I call a slow bleed this season; something was always leaking. It was hard to put a finger on this. I’ll try momentarily.

The former contributed to a sense of entitlement that no program ever truly earns, no matter how well stocked of players and coaches.

The latter was a no-brainer. Anthony Allen was a fair replacement of Jonathan Dwyer, nobody really replaced Morgan Burnett at safety, and the Yellow Jackets were on the other side of the Grand Canyon from replicating Demaryius Thomas and Derrick Morgan.

# Leadership from within the player ranks was insufficient, and so was following. More later on this.

#I’ve opined plenty on turnover margin. Johnson brought it up Saturday. Usually, I focus on turnovers as Tech was near the bottom of the nation in fumbles lost most of the season (finishing with 20).

Takeaways are part of that equation, too. The Jackets recovered 13 fumbles, which is mediocre, but as the coach said to intercept just eight passes when 365 are thrown against you – four in one game – is not going to work unless you’re hardly ever turning it over.

# Tech has to be demonstrably better on both lines of scrimmage next season. The entire starting D-line will be back (Jason Peters, Logan Walls and Izaan Cross).

Both starting guards (Omoregie Uzzi and Will Jackson), and two tackles who were in the three-man rotation (Nick Claytor and Phil Smith) return, but Jay Finch has big shoes to fill for the departure of two-time All-ACC center Sean Bedford.

Both lines are, for my two cents, the areas where Johnson’s heavy use of redshirting the past three seasons needs to show the most payoff. On defense, that will also require coordinator Al Groh to use more of the players at his disposal than he has shown a tendency toward.

Three freshmen who did not play this year – offensive linemen Catlin Alford and Morgan Bailey, and nose tackle Denzel McCoy – redshirted at least in part because they had surgery or medical issues. Tech needs them to be at least serviceable next season. It would help if between defensive linemen Shawn Green and J.C. Lanier at least one of them can push for earnest time. # Beyond quarterback, which comes with an asterisk, the Jackets look to be in good shape in the backfield. A-backs Roddy Jones and Orwin Smith return, and so do backups B.J. Bostic, Embry Peeples and Marcus Wright. At least one who red-shirted, namely Deon Hill, may factor.

There are several B-backs returning, but if David Sims makes the conversion from quarterback to B-back that coaches anticipate, I think he may start. He runs heavy and appears to have more wiggle than some already at the position.

# The passing game has to become more effective. That’ll be a function of throwing, catching and coaching it better.

“That is something that we talked about and we didn’t get any better at,” Johnson said. “We have to get better at it. People say that we have to throw more, but we aren’t . . . until we get better at it. Ultimately we are all accountable for it.”

#* Carrying that a step further, Johnson said that Tevin Washington will carry the starting quarterback’s job into spring practice.

My read is that while Sims will work there some in the spring, in part because numbers are a body low at the position, his future is elsewhere. He’s the least adept passer among Washington, freshman Synjyn Days and himself.

Spring will be a derby between Washington and Days. Unfortunately, an incoming recruit who cannot be named here for NCAA reasons would have had a better shot had he enrolled this month, which was at one time a plan discussed, but he won’t arrive until summer.

# The Jackets need to be nastier across the board. Enough said.

# At Tuesday’s team meeting, where Johnson will set the tone for 2011, I would not be surprised if he says something to the effect of, “If your NFL ambitions are more important than doing what we ask of you to help Georgia Tech win games next fall, you need to be elsewhere.”

That was, sad to say, an issue this season.

Here’s part of the slow bleed.

There will be no naming of names, but Johnson referenced – again – the importance, often misunderstood or assumed by outsiders to be trite, of chemistry. It was clear something was askew from about mid-season (Johnson said he saw it, without giving details, before the season), but it was difficult to discern what that was.

I’ve covered enough teams in seven years around the Falcons, one at Georgia (the first seasons for Jim Donnan and Tubby Smith) and a few years at Tech to sense the presence of bad apples.

My bad apple radar never lit up this season, but the machine was warm and there was a odd low hum to it.

To steal and twist from the fabulous 1967 movie, “Cool Hand Luke,” when the grizzled prison captain played by Strother Martin said, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” . . . the Jackets had a failure to connect.

There was, conversely, a disconnect in the ranks.

The Jackets had leaders, but they may not have been the right type of leaders for the set of followers present. As Johnson said Friday, “Some people don’t want to be led,” or something much to that effect.

Herein likes the muddle of entitlement.

It’s human condition to assume – subconsciously or not – that once something substantial is attained that it will be retained.

Uh, no.

A handful of players in position to lead this season by virtue of their actions and words moved mentally from last year’s ACC title and began fast-forwarding ahead of schedule to focus on their NFL dreams.

Some players felt that they were not being used in a fashion that benefitted their pro prospects. They sagged because of this, in level of play and in the natures of their soldiership.

When combined with the aforementioned poor peer-to-peer accountability among players, the resulting balky connections dove-tailed into more individualism and less team ethic.

The collective synapses did not often fire cleanly, especially as Tech lost five of its final six. The Jackets had more threads, less fabric.

My hunch is this is not a systemic flaw. The coach is of similar mind; this is not yet, after all, part of a pattern. Said he: “[T]he thing that you have to be careful of is you don’t blow everything up because it has been successful and you know the model works.”

The model needs pieces that fit together, however.

Even with Johnson’s proclamation that he is going to throw up the next time he reads (so, he reads this stuff?) about “Chan Gailey’s players this-Johnson’s players that,” etc., there were gaps in the ranks this season. Not divisions, I don’t think, but this was not a team of young men standing shoulder-to-shoulder singing Kumbaya.

# Recruiting is critical. This is true everywhere. There will be three new faces in the secondary next fall, and two of the four linebackers will be replaced as seniors move on. I can’t give an opinion on how recruiting is going, as I don’t follow that much any more.

Finally, if I were a betting man, I’d throw a buck at the suggestion that Johnson is not going to be warm and fuzzy over coming months.

He said he’s going to make changes regarding special teams in terms of who’s assigned what, and he added that he needs to get more involved. More on that later this winter/spring, I reckon.

“I don’t think anybody was satisfied with the way that the season went,” Johnson said. “Certainly we were disappointed, but, I am glad that it is over. You move on and start fresh this year. It is just like I told our team, every team is new.”

That was how Johnson started Friday. I use it at the finish to wrap up a campaign about which many fans agree.

Opinions welcome at stingdaily@gmail.com.

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