Aug. 7, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn – The Good Word – Football practice began last Thursday at Georgia Tech, yet the Yellow Jackets did not prepare for their season opener against Boston College. For the next few weeks, they’re going to work on themselves while building a collective identity.
Head coach Paul Johnson seemed genuinely happy after the Jackets’ first practice – even though the Jackets wouldn’t be in full pads for a few days – to be back at it with the goal of pushing last year’s 3-9 record further in the rear view mirror.
“It was great to get back out there,” Johnson said. “I think  certainly left a lot to be desired, and it’s something that we don’t want to totally forget but it’s something we want to put behind us . . .
“It’s like I told the team at the first meeting [last Wednesday] night: there’s very few things in life that you get a clean slate on, where you get to just start over. You don’t have any wins, any losses, there’s no fumbles . . .
“What I want to do the first two weeks of camp is set the tone for what we are: hard work, blue collar, high energy, attention to detail. I could not care less [yet] about who we’re playing.”
Unlike last season, when Tech was wracked by injuries even before the season started and then more so as they moved through the fall, all Jackets were available for the open of fall camp.
A-backs Qua Searcy and Nate Cottrell are back from injuries and J.J. Green will be eligible to play after sitting out following his transfer from Georgia. Players were not available for interviews until Saturday’s Media Day but Johnson’s smile spoke for them when practice opened last Thursday.
“We’ve got more depth, more numbers. For the first time in a long time we’ve got 10 wide receivers,” he said. “There were eight quarterbacks out there. We’ve got enough linemen to practice. There have been times where we didn’t have two groups of lines.
“For the first time in a long time we didn’t have a red shirt out there. That’s saying something when you’ve got 105 guys and they’re all practicing.”
While fifth-year graduate student Justin Thomas is set to start at quarterback, there will be plenty of competition at other backfield spots and wide receiver.
No position is undergoing more turnover than the secondary, where former starting defensive backs D.J. White, Chris Milton, Jamal Golden and Demond Smith have graduated. Johnson, though, is looking forward to competition there.
“I’m excited to see what A.J. Gray can do with a year (of experience),” he said. “He had to play as a freshman. Step Durham had to go in and play some last year. Lance Austin, Lawrence [Austin] has played. There’s some guys who have played mixed in with some guys I think have some athletic ability.”
Several true freshmen played last season because they had to, and Johnson thinks the Jackets will be better for it.
“Last year, when most everybody got hurt, if the quarterback didn’t make [plays], you’re playing with [freshman B-back] Marcus Marshall, who just finished high school,” he recalled. “It’s a big transition to big boy football from high school.
“I would fully suspect that Marcus Marshall, after a full offseason and a year of playing, he knows what he’s walking into far better now than he did a year ago. [Wide receiver] Brad Stewart’s the same way. We had to put him out there probably before he was ready. I think that helps those kids. They know what they’re walking into now.”
If not for his preseason knee injury, the speedy Cottrell would have played last season. After being held out of spring practice while continuing his rehabilitation, he’s champing to get back in the flow.
“Nate was really pressing, but if you think about it he was a freshman and got hurt week two of fall camp so he’s missed all of spring so it’s almost like he’s a freshman again,” Johnson said. “We liked what we saw before he got hurt, and I think he’s back healthy.”
Tech won’t begin preparing specifically for the Sept. season opener against Boston College in Dublin, Ireland for at least another week. First, they’ll work strictly on shaping themselves. After two days with no pads and two more in shells (helmets and shoulder pads), that self-shaping takes a huge step on Monday when the Jackets don full pads and play “real football” for the first time.
“Every year is a fresh start and you have to develop your own identity,” Johnson said. “It’s either a player-driven team or a coach-driven team, and the better teams that I’ve been around have been player driven where they have high expectations and they want to succeed and hold each other accountable.”