March 29, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Heading into spring practice last March, Georgia Tech football was coming off a 3-9 season, which ended their bowl streak at 18 years, and was a team hungry for redemption.
Heading into the 2017 edition of spring ball, the Yellow Jackets come off a 9-4 season, a dramatic win over Georgia in Athens and the start of a new bowl-appearance streak. But the bounce-back and all that success did anything but satisfy expectations. If anything, this group is even hungrier, looking to prove that 2016 was not a fluke but the start of even greater days ahead.
“Coming off a bowl game win is definitely great but, at the end of the day, we’re still looking to push better than 9-4,” said senior safety Corey Griffin, one of eight starters returning on defense from last year’s squad that beat Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl, including all five of those in the secondary (the Jackets return starters at 16 positions overall). “We’re definitely looking to get more than nine wins this season. We’re looking forward to this season coming up.”
They’ve even got a rallying cry: “Start in the Dome, finish in the Dome.”
“I came up with it this morning,” Griffin said, with a laugh. “I was just thinking about it, the national championship [game] is here in Atlanta this year, so it’s in our hometown, our backyard.”
The first part of the slogan refers to Georgia Tech meeting Tennessee in its opener in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Labor Day. The team took a positive first step toward this “Dome-ination” on Monday, beginning spring practice literally in its backyard, with spirited workouts at Rose Bowl Field.
“It was fun to be back out there again,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “I thought the energy was good and guys were bouncing around. We got off to a good start today for what will hopefully be a really valuable spring.”
Johnson said he didn’t really notice any difference in his approach to this spring nor did he expect to see one in the players. He’s expecting the same desire the team had last year at this time. He’s certainly not lowering expectations.
“I don’t think anybody’s happy with where we finished last year,” he said. “Our goal is to try to win our division and be in the ACC Championship Game. We didn’t get there so we fell short of what we wanted. I don’t see a big difference.
What is different is the the team’s personality, which will be determined in the days leading up to the spring game on April 21.
“We’ll see how hard they work in practice and how hard they work in the offseason and all those kinds of things,” Johnson said. “Each team is different. Every year is different and it’s a different group of guys and you have different leaders. Certainly we didn’t lose a big senior class but we lost some really good players.”
Amongst them were three-year starting quarterback Justin Thomas, middle linebacker P.J. Davis, two of the five spots on the offensive line (center Freddie Burden and tackle Eason Fromayan) and two of four on defensive line (tackle Patrick Gamble and end Rod Rook-Chungong).
While redshirt junior Matthew Jordan has the inside track at signal-caller with his 14 games played (one start), he will be pushed by junior TaQuon Marshall and redshirt freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones.
“Matthew knows the system, he’s been consistent, he’s played in games, he’s started on the road, he’s older. He’s way ahead of those other guys in that aspect,” said Johnson. “But all those guys are different. ‘Quon has got some unique things about him, and the two freshmen, Lucas is a little taller, a little bigger, and Jay may be as quick as anybody we’ve ever had. I’m not as worried about the quarterback spot as I am some of the other spots. We’ll be fine there.”
That said, Johnson and his players alike will enjoy seeing how the competition plays out.
“They all throw pretty good,” said senior wide receiver Ricky Jeune, the Jackets’ leading receiver last season (25 catches, 427 yards, 1 TD). “Jay is more of an elusive guy and Matthew is more of a bruiser. Lucas is a mix between both. So it’s going to be interesting to see. I’m looking forward to it.”
While Jeune has been catching passes from would-be starting QBs with the rest of the receiving corps twice a week since the season ended, senior defensive end KeShun Freeman is also interested in the QB race. Regardless of the winner, it’ll certainly different than the familiar sight of having Justin Thomas behind center and in the locker room.
“It is funny not seeing [Thomas] around, but hey, we’ve got to move on,” Freeman said. “He’s still our brother but we’ve got guys who can really fill in that spot so I’m excited to see how they compete. With them going harder, it makes us go harder. It’s going to be a really great competition.”
That same spirit of competition will be taking place on the d-line, which lost major contributor Francis Kallon in addition to Gamble and Rook-Chungong and has no shortage of hungry suitors to fill those roles.
“We lost a lot of guys up front so we’d like to come out of spring with a six-, seven-man rotation we feel good about,” said Johnson. “Inside’s where we really lost the guys so we’ve got to find somebody. Kyle [Cerge-Henderson] has played in there, Desmond [Branch] played some at the end, you’ve got to get Brentavious [Glanton] in there. I want to see what Jordan Woods can do — he was hurt last year. Outside, KeShun is back, Antonio [Simmons] has played a lot, Anree [Saint-Amour], there’s some guys there. We probably have more depth on the defensive line than we’ve had in a long time.”
Tech also has as many as 14 or 15 players on the o-line and will seek the right combination, with six different players that made starts last year returning — seniors Shamire Devine and Andrew Marshall, junior Will Bryan and sophomores Parker Braun, Kenny Cooper and Jahaziel Lee.
“It’s going to be mix-and-match up there,” Johnson said. “We can put together two groups to practice with.”
Getting everyone a look is always the key during the spring and that will be true at A-back, where redshirt sophomores Nathan Cottrell and Omahri Jarrett will get reps, and B-back, where redshirt sophomores KirVonte Benson and Quaide Weimerskirch will look for the inside track as No. 2 behind true sophomore Dedrick Mills.
Just don’t used the word guaranteed because when it comes to having a starting spot nothing is guaranteed.
“We’re excited to be back. We ended pretty okay but we know we can do better. So we’re ready to go out there and prove ourselves and prepare ourselves for fall camp,” said Freeman. “That’s what makes this spring very exciting because no one, pretty much at any position, is set. We’re all competing for different spots. We’re going hard to make Georgia Tech the best Georgia Tech we can.”
Not even secondary is necessarily set, even with all five starters back in the fold (Griffin, FS A.J. Gray, corners Lance Austin and Step Durham and nickel Lawrence Austin.”
“Just like anybody on the team, we’re going to work. We’re going to put our best effort forward every time we step on the field,” said Griffin. “You’ve got Lance, Lawrence, Step, A.J., all those guys, they have experience now, they’re older. We’re probably one of the oldest position groups on the field. Having a lot of experience is probably going to take us a long way.”
They hope all the way to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and back.