Sept. 2, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word – All coaches are superstitious to a point.
Most often they mask those superstitions with terms like “rituals” or do their best to hide them entirely (some coaches even go as far as hiding things like depth charts).
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson is no exception but he’s far less likely to carry a rabbit’s foot or feel any pangs of guilt should he step on a crack in the sidewalk.
That’s why his knocking on wood during a press briefing regarding this season’s team may have seemed a little out of the ordinary and his doing so twice, in the same press conference, seemed almost unheard of.
But when you look at what he was talking about, who could blame him?
“This is the first time (knocks twice on podium) I can remember finishing camp with everybody. We didn’t lose a soul in camp. Everybody’s good to go,” he said in response to a question about the team’s health. “Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw. We lost a freshman defensive lineman [Jordan Woods] during practice but I’m talking about guys in the two-deep that we were counting on to play. Right now we have them all.
“It’s certainly far different than last year,” he added. “We lost both B-backs in the spring, we lost … it was like popcorn. It was everywhere.”
Last season’s constant string of injuries followed a 2014 season when just about everything went right. So for 2016, karma should be even. Johnson, who is looking to raise his record to 8-1 in Tech season openers, hopes that this year’s healthy team can take advantage of a karmic swing back due for Tech’s season-opening opponent Boston College — assuming he believes in those things.
Last season, Steve Addazio’s Eagles fielded a defense that led the nation in total defense (254.3 yards per game) and topped the ACC in nine categories, total defense, rushing defense (164.4 ypg), scoring defense (15.3 ppg), passing yards allowed (171.5), third-down defense (24.1 percent), fourth-down defense (20.0 percent), red-zone defense (73.3), first downs (166), and punt returns (1.66 yards per return). They return eight starters from that unit, including honorable-mention all-ACC senior linebacker Matt Milano and junior defensive end Harold Landry, both of whom finished in the top 10 in the ACC in tackles for loss last season (Milano sixth with 17.5 TFL and Landry eighth with 15.5)..
“They have eight starters back so I’m sure that they’re going to be very similar to what they were a year ago,” Johnson said. “Like anything, even though there’s a new coordinator [former Virginia DC Jim Reid], I’m sure he’s going to look at what they did successfully and add to his repertoire. They’ve got a lot of experience. (Reid) has coached for a long time and so has [defensive line coach] Paul Pasqualoni, so they both been around the block and you’re probably not going to give them anything they haven’t seen.
“I think we’re better [on the offensive line] but we’ll see,” he added. “They’re certainly going to get a test right out of the box. These guys are good. Their two defensive ends a year ago were really good and their inside guys could run. Last year they blitzed a lot, too. I don’t know if they’re going to continue to do that. But they’re a high-risk, high-reward kind of defense. We’ll line up and we’ll play. I don’t think they’ll line up in anything we haven’t seen.”
On Tech’s defensive side, the Jackets line up at full strength, including having junior defensive end KeShun Freeman back from the minor ailment that forced him to miss a few practices. Freeman’s got redemption on his mind and can’t wait to get started.
“I just know that we have to go out there and be better than we were last year,” he said. “Last year, we had a lot of missed tackles, we had a lot of missed sacks, interceptions that we could have caught that we missed out on. We lost a lot of games because of little, small details like that. I think this year we’re ready to go out there and really focus on those details and just have fun playing the game.
“We remember that feeling that we had last year and we know we’re working so we won’t have that same exact feeling,” he added. “3-9 does not feel good at all, especially because you know you’ve got guys who were winners in high school and the year before we were Orange Bowl champions. That feeling really hurt us so we’re coming back this year. We’re trying to be stronger, smarter and a more physical team than we’ve been.”
While Johnson didn’t know which starting quarterback his team would be facing as late as Thursday — redshirt senior Patrick Towles or redshirt sophomore Darius Wade — he warned that the Jackets had best be on their game, regardless.
“Offensively, quarterback is up in the air, we don’t know who it’s going to be, the running back when he’s been healthy has been a really good player,” he said, “and they’ve got some big, physical offensive linemen.”
Johnson knows who his starting QB will be, senior Justin Thomas, as well as his backup (Matthew Jordan), and will be able to pick and choose at B-back — either sophomore Marcus Marshall or freshman Dedrick Mills, while redshirt sophomore Clinton Lynch will start at one A-back spot and either redshirt senior Isiah Willis or redshirt junior J.J. Green at the other.
He seemed eager to talk about his choices this year, which will be based on players’ ability to run, unlike last year, when it was based on the ability to walk.
“In this game, we’ll kind of script a series or two and then if somebody’s hot, we’ll leave them in or that kind of thing,” Johnson said about the B-back position. “But [Mills and Marshall] will both play.
“There’s going to be four, five, maybe six guys playing that position,” said Johnson of A-back. “I think J.J. would have been up the depth chart a year ago if he had been eligible [after transferring to Tech from Georgia]. He brings an element of toughness to the game, he’s pretty physical for a smaller guy (5-9, 188) and he likes playing football. He has good football awareness. So hopefully he’ll really help us.”
Johnson believes that all the elements are in place for a big effort Saturday and that the team will be locked in, especially with it being an ACC game.
“You hope,” he said. “It will be a challenge. We’ll see where we are right away.”
The Jackets are looking to go 4-2 in ACC season-openers and 10-3 in their last 13 conference debuts, while continuing their run of success against B.C., against whom they are 6-2 (3-1 in ACC play).
Johnson certainly won’t settle for any excuses, such as the time difference (Dublin is five hours ahead of Atlanta). That’s something he experienced first-hand in 1996 as Navy’s offensive coordinator, when the Midshipmen traveled to Dublin to play Notre Dame (he hopes Saturday will turn out better than that 54-27 loss), as well as on a couple of golfing trips to Scotland and for many years while coaching at the University of Hawaii.
“I think it’s hard in some ways but I had eight years at the University of Hawaii where every road game was like eight or nine hours,” he said. “So you gain some knowledge, hopefully, in that and how to try to do things. You hope you’ve got them ready. We talk about it every day.”
Another topic about which Johnson talks with the team on a daily basis is how they represent Georgia Tech.
It is important enough that the Institute’s President G.P. “Bud” Peterson addressed the team on Monday before they left.
“He told them how important they were to the school and that they’re the front porch of Georgia Tech,” Johnson said. “More people see them than about any other facet of the school.”
Behavior, and the lack of need to be concerned about it, led to Johnson’s second knocking on the podium.
“We talk about that all the time (knocks twice on the podium). We have never had a problem with that here,” he said. “I think our guys understand the difference between right and wrong. It’s like I tell them all the time, we have one rule: ‘Do right.’ I interpret it. If you have any question, it’s probably not right.”
Johnson hopes the Jackets will do right in taking the first step toward bouncing back from last season. They’ll do their best to be good ambassadors for Georgia Tech and put on a good show for the fans, a lot of whom will be wearing the White and Gold.
“It has been a long time since we’ve played and we’re looking forward to having the chance to get back out there and see what we’ve accomplished during the offseason,” he said. “I think there is going to be a pretty good amount of Georgia Tech fans over there. We sold (a lot) more tickets than they have. They’ll know when to cheer. Hopefully we’ll give them something to cheer about.”