Georgia Tech football is determined to make 2018 its year and expects to have plenty of heroes.
In that spirit, several Yellow Jackets student-athletes reported to the team hotel on Thursday in superhero costumes.
“Me, TaQuon [Marshall], a couple of the other seniors were talking about how we can make this last first day of camp special,” said senior wide receiver Brad Stewart. “I threw out having a theme and I think TaQuon or Jalen Johnson decided about making it a superhero theme. Get some good laughs and see who dressed up as what. We did it. It was fun.”
Ironically, no one came as Aquaman, who would have been right at home on a day of torrential downpours and almost constant rain, but Marshall’s Spiderman and Stewart’s Captain America were highlights.
While not everyone was into dressing up — senior linebacker and co-captain Brant Mitchell wore all camo while fellow senior linebacker Victor Alexander simply donned the new adidas gear — everyone was on the same page as far as expressing the team’s mission of redemption for 2017, as well as its solidarity and sky-high optimism for 2018.
“Starting [Friday], we open the first pages of the 2018 chapter and we’re anxious and looking forward to that opportunity,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “I go into every year thinking we have a chance to win all our games and our goal is to win the Coastal Division and the ACC Championship. I don’t see any reason we can’t do that if everything comes together and we stay healthy and play. Last year, we were a couple of plays away from winning eight or nine games, really, and we have a good nucleus coming back. There are a lot of areas we can improve and we’re excited to have a chance to get out there and see if we can’t do better in those situations.”
The nine student-athletes that talked with local media on Thursday — co-captains Marshall and Mitchell, Stewart, Alexander, A-back Qua Searcy, B-back KirVonte Benson, offensive lineman Parker Braun, defensive lineman Anree Saint-Amour and punter Pressley Harvin III — all expressed their desire to get back on the field and show how their offseason work will pay off on Saturdays, beginning Sept. 1 versus Alcorn State.
“I’m super-excited just because I haven’t been playing football, actually playing an opponent, since last November,” said Marshall, who was held out of the spring game due to a last-minute illness. “So it’s been a long time. Obviously, we’re not opening up in a huge game like at Mercedes-Benz last year, but being able to open up at home is awesome. Just to get back out and play the game is exciting.”
“We’ve been out of football long enough,” agreed Alexander. “Enough guys have been doing a lot of talking, a lot of teams have been brought up that we took some ‘L’s to last year. We’re looking very forward to getting back to work.”
Playing the entire game, especially the end of both halves, was a theme hammered home by players on both sides of the ball.
“Closing out a first half, offensively, if we have the ball, we need to control how we move the ball and, on the last possession of the first half, we have to score,” said Searcy. “Defensively, we can’t give up any scores. It would be perfect to get a turnover. We’ve got to focus on finishing. That’s one of the things we’re working on.”
Their tough-luck 5-6 record and not participating in a bowl game provided plenty of incentive during the off-season. The 2018 schedule, which includes three preseason top-10s — ACC rivals Clemson (No. 2) and Miami (No. 8), as well as archrival Georgia (No. 4) — plus another top-25 in Virginia Tech (No. 17), adds even more.
“There are some teams out there that, for the past few years, we haven’t been stepping on their necks like we should have. This year is going to be very important to be giant killers,” said Alexander. “I know that we were up on teams a lot last year. Towards the end of the games we fatigued a lot … We’re definitely going to focus a lot more on finishing as well as starting.”
“Three top-10 teams, that’s very exciting,” added Saint-Amour. “You have a chance to get those guys off the board and you have a chance to go up the board. It’s a hard schedule but we’re definitely excited about it. It helps us to get better. Looking back on the offseason, it was the same mindset that we’re talking about, finishing the little things. Having emphasis on finishing your workout, emphasis on finishing your runs. It was all those little things that just build up.”
Anticipation is building for the new 3-4 defense and the good things that will be coming as the unit relentlessly comes at opponents for 60 minutes.
“How we start, we have to finish the same way,” said Alexander. “The energy that we bring to the field coming out of the locker room, how we’re so hyped and ready to play, that has to kick in in the second half. We know that our offense needs some work as far as who they go up against, so we have to go harder in practice, too. [New GT defensive coordinator] Coach [Nate] Woody is forcing us to practice how we play. Practice as if it’s a Saturday night game or if NFL scouts were watching.”
Even the offense expressed excitement about the new defense.
“I like the defense,” said Benson. “I don’t know who’s going to play but whoever does play is going to make an impact. I see a lot of eager faces and a lot of competition within the defense — ‘I want to play and I’m going to show you that I want to play.’ I’m excited to see it.’”
“I love it,” said Braun. “It’s faster and more physical and it’s what we see more often during the season. It’s great all-around. That style of defense is more conducive to the athletes that we have on defense. I think we’ll have great success with it.”
Harvin is counting on having greater success as a big part of improved special teams — an area Johnson promised would get a lot of work in fall camp.
“I’m ready to go out there and show them what we’ve got,” said Pressley, a freshman all-American and third-team all-ACC selection last year and member of this year’s Ray Guy Award preseason watch list. “No. 1, help the team as much as I can, build on the average we had last year, make sure we have zero returns for touchdown. Just making sure we do the best we can on fourth down. Last year we were 38 yards net, I believe. I want to see if we can get that to 40, 40-plus range.”
With Friday being their final first day of Fall Camp, there’s been a lot of talk among the team’s seniors about the legacy they want to leave.
“It’s extremely important to continue a football program that has a tradition of winning,” Mitchell said. “Everybody wants to win. You always want to come back and say, ‘I was part of that. I helped lay the foundation of having a really successful team and somebody that teams are afraid to play.’ It’s about establishing a culture and a standard in how we do things. To be a part of that is something special.
“Anybody would want to be feared going into the game playing them but that’s something that we’re going to have to prove from day one, starting [Friday] in practice,” he added. “If you want a name, you have to go make it for yourself. It’s the last year to show what I’ve got and take this team as far as we can go and defensively be as dominant as we can. It’s business time. Time to get serious.”
There may even be another superhero parade down the road.
“We might do it again,” said Benson, with a laugh. “One day we might come down Yellow Jacket Alley as superheroes.”
The Jackets hope there will be six such days this fall, beginning on Sept. 1.