A closer look at our first opponent for the 2009 football season – Georgia Tech.
This was originally posted by David Hale in his blog, David covers UGA for the Macon Telegraph and Ledger-Enquirer.

Head coach: Paul Johnson (second year)
2008 Record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)
Total Offense: 372.5 ypg (1st in the ACC, 50th overall)
Total Defense: 313.5 ypg (6th in the ACC, 25th overall)
On the docket: Georgia Tech opens its season Sept. 5 against Jacksonville State and closes out the regular season by hosting Georgia on Nov. 28.

In his first season at Georgia Tech, Paul Johnson turned around the program both in terms of wins and losses and in general perception. His triple-option offense was the talk of college football at times last year, and for the first time since Mark Richt came to Georgia, the Yellow Jackets managed a win over their in-state rival. To find out how Johnson planned to top his introductory season in 2009, I traded emails with the Macon Telegraph’s Georgia Tech beat writer Coley Harvey.
David Hale: Well, Year 1 of the triple option proved to be pretty successful for Paul Johnson, but he has hinted he might like to expand the offense a bit this season. How much, if at all, have the Yellow Jackets tweaked their offense so far this spring, and how well do you think the triple option holds up now that teams have had a chance to see it once already?

Coley Harvey: One of the myths Paul Johnson has tried to dispel this offseason is the fact that his option offense is complete. Far from it. The Yellow Jackets head coach implemented a very bare bones set of plays, formations and schemes to his system last season, opting to showcase a very small portion of his largely triple-option system. One of the components the Yellow Jackets have worked on this spring is the run-n-shoot. A pass-oriented offense, the run-n-shoot will be used to counterbalance the option rushing attack, and has the ability to really give the Yellow Jackets a strong, multi-pronged offensive attack. Don’t expect it to be used significantly this season; the Yellow Jackets will still probably hang their hats on the option aspect of the offense.

Most fans may look at Georgia Tech’s passing numbers from last season, and figure there aren’t any strong receivers to catch passes from quarterbacks Josh Nesbitt and Jaybo Shaw. On the contrary, the Yellow Jackets have a big, speedy pass-catcher in Middle Georgian Demaryius Thomas, and are expecting another deep threat in recruit Stephen Hill. This spring, sophomore Tyler Melton has emerged as an obvious No. 2 guy to Thomas, and has proven to have the best hands on the team behind Thomas.

In terms of how well the triple option will hold up in Year 2, that definitely is a question that will be best answered after the season starts. It’s clear, however, that junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer — last year’s ACC Player of the Year — has gotten stronger, heavier and a little faster this spring. It could be tougher for teams to bring him down this year due to his increased size, and in scrimmages, he continues to run straight ahead for four and five yards per play. In Johnson’s mind, if his offense can run for four yards on every play of every down, that’s positive yardage, and leads to first downs. With an expanded offensive scheme, it could prove tough for opposing teams to challenge the offense this season.

DH: Tech lost three very good players from a defensive line that was among the best in the ACC last year. Who has stepped up this spring, and how crucial will it be for the defense to identify replacements for the departed stars?

CH: Vance Walker, Darryl Richard and Michael Johnson will be sorely missed by the Yellow Jackets next season. They were giants along the defensive front, and the true heart and soul of the entire defensive unit. Perhaps the biggest void created by their graduations and likely departures for the NFL is the lack of leadership that all of a sudden hits the team. Three of just five seniors who started regularly last season, they were the public faces of the program, often speaking in ways that galvanized their teammates to action. They truly carried Georgia Tech on their backs in a year that most people expected the Yellow Jackets to be far from good. This year, there is only one senior slated to start on defense in the form of linebacker Sedric Griffin. So the Yellow Jackets’ biggest concern is finding a leader to take the place of those three players.

Identifying replacements — from a talent perspective — is among the least of Georgia Tech’s worries. The Yellow Jackets have already found a fairly deep group of defensive linemen to take the spots of the three 2008 All-ACCselections. The lock, so to speak, along the line is junior defensive end Derrick Morgan, who is already drawing the praise and acclaim that Michael Johnson had entering his senior season. Head coach Paul Johnson even went as far as calling Morgan his best defensive lineman at times last season. At the other end, Middle Georgian Robert Hall has emerged as the front-runner at the position, and has a strong chance to start this fall. On the interior, two of the team’s strongest players in Ben Anderson and Jason Peters have emerged as the leading candidates at defensive tackle. While those could be the major components to the defensive line, the Yellow Jackets are also looking at the hefty Jason Hill and T.J. Barnes. Barnes, a redshirt last year, came into spring practice weighing over 360 pounds. As of the final week of spring practice, he was holding steady at 345. Both Hill and Barnes will give the Yellow Jackets an increase in size, and a serious presence on the interior for the next couple of seasons.

DH: I know spring isn’t usually a time teams focus on special teams, but that was a big problem for Tech a year ago. Have you seen anything that would make you think things could be different this year?

CH: Special teams was the one area that gave the Yellow Jackets the most trouble last season. So far this srping, Paul Johnson has proven that despite how bad the area was last year, he isn’t letting it worry him. Punting and kicking, particularly field goal kicking, was “atrocious” (Paul Johnson’s words several times last season) for the Yellow Jackets, but it is the one area they haven’t really touched at all this spring. The head coach said they’ll focus on it during fall camp in August instead. While he’s spent most practices off to the side casually going through the motions, Georgia Tech kicker Scott Blair has tried numerous techniques to improve his kicking, and believes he is seeing progress. Only time will tell.

The Yellow Jackets have done work on their return games, however, giving up to four different players extensive tryouts this spring at both punt and kick return. The likely leaders in those areas are A-back Roddy Jones and cornerback Jerrard Tarrant. Jones fielded punts for the last few games last season, averaging 8.8 yards per kick. Tarrant missed all of last season after being suspended while a pending legal issue was worked out. Charges against him in that matter were dropped in February, and he was able to rejoin the team this spring. And he hasn’t appeared to miss a beat. His speed is there, his hands are there, as is his vision. For a former return specialist and cornerback at Carrollton High School, it’s just a matter of getting back into the flow of something he execelled at while in high school.

DH: Georgia Tech obviously met and exceeded a lot of expectations last season, including toppling Georgia, but their year ended with an ugly loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl. So what has been the attitude on the team this spring — are they riding high off last year’s success or reliving that final loss for some added motivation?

CH: Judging from the practices this spring, you wouldn’t even know the Yellow Jackets lost their last game of the season. Perhaps getting blown out 38-3 in the Chic-fil-A Bowl — and (I know you’ll hate this Bulldogs fans, but…) the win over Georgia at the end of the year — lessened the blow of the loss, and allowed the Yellow Jackets to move on quickly. Had it been a closer final score in that game, maybe the loss would have been more heartbreaking, and you’d see players still moping.

But they’ve moved on, and are using it for, what some may consider, surprising and lofty motivation. No, they didn’t win the ACC Championship last year, and no, they didn’t appear in a January bowl game, but the Yellow Jackets genuinely and sincerely believe they can make a run at a national championship next season. Sure, it’s the focus of any college football team at this point in the year, but Georgia Tech has been talking about setting its sights on Pasadena in the moments after their New Year’s Eve bowl loss, and the team really seems to believe it. If there’s one thing Paul Johnson is, it’s a good motivator. He has a knack for getting the best and the most out of his teams, and proved that greatly last season when he turned a young program most expected to go 3-9, and brought it toward the strong finish.

DH: After seeing the team this spring, what jumped out at you in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions Tech still needs to answer before the season begins?

CH: There were a number of positive things that jumped out at me this spring. The main thing was how quickly the Yellow Jackets’ backfield has come around. The unit doesn’t just hinge around Dwyer anymore. Roddy Jones, who rushed for more than 200 yards on 13 carries against the Bulldogs last season, is continuing to emerge as a strong blocker and quick running back. Also emerging are running backs Anthony Allen and Richard Watson. Allen, a transfer from Louisville, is playing for Georgia Tech for the first time, and has come on as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, as well as a big, bruising back who can be paired with the equally bruising Dwyer. Watson, a redshirt freshman, has been the backfield’s biggest surprise this spring, bursting onto the scene as a viable backup to Dwyer during second-team workouts during scrimmages this spring. Lucas Cox, who was one of the team’s most consistent A-backs last season is also in the mix, and has had good moments, but his role may be less clear this season with a greater depth in the unit.

Tarrant has also jumped out at me. For a guy who missed an entire season to mesh back into the everyday grind as quickly as he has, it’s been pretty remarkable. He’s been around the ball everytime he’s on the field during 7-on-7 and team passing drills, and he’s been working on fielding punts and becoming a star in that respect. Although he’s lost a year of eligibilty, the junior could be a major part of the Yellow Jackets’ defense for the next two seasons, and possibly sneak onto the radar of NFL scouts.

The biggest questions the Yellow Jackets need to answer going into their Sept. 5 season-opener against Jacksonville State:

1. Special teams. Just how will the unit respond this fall to a lack of training this spring? Will the kickers and punters — who have struggled to sink kicks during some unofficial scrimmages this spring — respond successfully?

2. Passing. How much of a role do they want to give Demaryius Thomas and the rest of the receiving corps? Can the rest of the receivers come along and play a supporting role for him? Can they keep the drops to the minimum and spark another strong aspect of the offense to counteract the option?

3. Leadership. Who will step up to fill a void left by a number of Yellow Jackets? Three defensive linemen who graduated after last season were the most vocal members of the team. Who will take their place this year? The team has just one senior who likely will start on defense. Can he do it alone, or will others be required to step up, as well?

* Coley Harvey is the Georgia Tech beat writer for the Macon Telegraph. You can find his Tech coverage online here.

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