Sept. 1, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
No matter what happened last season, nor who’s back for more, or even how promising newcomers may have looked in preseason practices, Georgia Tech’s season is about to begin with hints of uneasiness that mark this time of year.
Whatever word you’d choose from a spectrum running from “curiosity” through “apprehension” to “paranoia,” coaches and players are measured differently.
Junior quarterback Justin Thomas played his usual serene scene in Monday’s final media meetings before Thursday’s season opener. His ever-calm, cool, collected manner figures to serve the Yellow Jackets well against Alcorn State.
So for purposes of lighting the wick of essential nervous energy in the final days before Alcorn State arrives, we’ll turn to Ted Roof.
He shall be the flame of hyper focus, much as he was while playing linebacker in the middle of Tech’s, “Black Watch,” defense in the mid-1980s.
After Monday’s practice, Tech defensive coordinator was considerably jittery, notably dialed in, and in no mood for joviality.
Tech’s defense returns eight starters from an 11-3 squad that whipped Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, appears to have more depth – old and young – than in years, and on paper looks to be perhaps as effective as or better than any that head coach Paul Johnson has run into Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Roof lit that paper on fire, as if the suggestions on it were penned by fools.
“You weren’t at practice today, were you?” he shot back when asked if it was reasonable to believe more deeply in Tech defenders than in years.
OK, part of Roof’s job description is to play at least a part-time role as doomsayer, particularly when the risk of egos getting in the way of execution could be heightened by a mix of recent success and present expectations.
But the players are there, and most of the Tech defenders are entering their third season in Roof’s systems so their surely is a greater understanding of what’s what.
Roof, who drew All-America honors as a Jacket upon ransacking opposing defenses from 1982-’85, looked ready to play again as he mulled the question.
While damp, it was unclear whether he’d showered or was still sweating after registering 25 tackles, as he did against Tennessee in ’85.
The Jackets are better positioned than in a while, correct?
“Today we weren’t,” the D-boss reported. “We have been at times throughout camp. We’ve got a lot of mental work to do before Thursday night.”
Not every wick is yet lit.
External expectations are jacked up, yet Thomas and others, including precocious sophomore defensive end KeShun Freeman, gave voice to the notion of blacking out the musings of outsiders.
For Thomas, that’s natural and requires no special effort.
He operates in a vacuum like perhaps no other Jacket, fully integrated with teammates, coaches, the plan and its execution to where he genuinely could not care less about hype attached by others.
Thomas is one of the Jackets’ clear leaders, yet totes no megaphone, owns no soapbox, and is fully disinclined to preach. Even after one of the most successful seasons ever built by a Tech quarterback, he’s not about to start grandstanding.
He acknowledges only barely that he might serve as a leader by virtue of his work ethic and the toughness that Johnson so often credits the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Alabama man for bringing to work.
Thomas believes that the business of separating football fiction and fact is primarily a personal responsibility – a matter of policing one’s self.
“It’s all the same,” he said of this year’s approach relative to last. “From the outside looking in, the expectations are high but always on the inside we always expect to play to our highest ability and play like we did last year.
“It’s up to the individual. Going through these practices, I haven’t thought about last year. They haven’t thought about last year . . . If we’re going out there every day saying you can’t think about last year, that means you’re thinking about last year. Just go out there and take one play at a time.”
Freeman, who earned freshman All-America honors last season after leading Tech linemen in tackles (54) and all Jackets in tackles for lost yardage (9.5) and sacks (4.5), offered a more deliberate plan for parsing outer influences.
“I feel like that’s pretty much a good thing that the defense is [expected] to do some good things,” he said. “But we’ve got to look past that kind of stuff. I feel like it’s the responsibility of everyone on the roster to stay grounded and focused.
“We can all stay together and say, ‘Hey man, if we see a change in you . . . ’ The coaches can say a certain amount of things, but when your teammates are getting onto you . . . the team can actually support itself. We’re just trying to stay focused, and out of the media. When you have a big head, it does distract you.”
Offensive line coach Mike Sewak is either more settled in his troops than Roof, or a better – or more willing – actor.
With starters Bryan Chamberlain, Trey Braun, Freddie Burden and Errin Joe back, and confidence that Shamire Devine will move smoothly into a starting role at guard, he mixed a smile with calm demeanor in looking to Thursday.
“I’m 90 percent sure I know what is going to happen Thursday night,” Sewak said of more depth fetching a keener attention to detail in practices. “I’m excited . . . The competition . . . steel sharpens steel.
“It always has. If you’re not on your game, if you’re not on point, studying your plays and working on your technique, you’re going to slide.”
Roof hopes to avoid sliding.
As Georgia Tech will play the Braves for the first time, the FCS squad comes in as defending SWAC champions and fresh memories of a 10-3 season.
Junior quarterback John Gibbs Sr. is somewhat like Thomas in bigger form.
At 6-6 and 208 pounds, he’ll offer a dual-threat test while triggering a unit that returns 10 starters after averaging nearly 494 yards 44 points per game.
He passed for 2,482 yards and 21 scores, and rushed for 1,006 yards and 11 touchdowns as Alcorn State gave up just seven sacks all season.
“[Gibbs] is an NFL draft prospect,” Roof said. “They’ve got an experienced offensive line. They’ve got running backs who could play for a lot of teams in this league. They’ve got wide receivers who can make plays. This is a real challenge.
“We’ve got to polish things up. Our focus and our attention to detail really have to improve a lot before Thursday day night.”
Sewak can do a little Roof.
A touch of apprehension comes out when he talks about deploying some linemen for the first time at the collegiate level. It won’t be practice.
“Until you get out there . . . you look around in that stadium, and sometimes when you first start it’s kind of a lonely experience,” he said. “But after you’ve played, you realize all 55,000 are there to watch you do good things.
“You don’t move the ball back to the 30-yard-line and say, ‘Let’s do it again.’ You’re headed to the sideline or headed to the end zone. If we’re headed to the end zone, we’re going to be happy. If we’re headed to the sideline, there’s going to be a lot of unhappy people.”
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