Georgia Tech started 6-0 last season, and visions of the program's second BCS appearance danced in every Yellow Jacket's head.
Alas, Tech lost five of its past seven. Thus, while the Yellow Jackets went to their 15th consecutive bowl – and won eight games for the fourth time in six seasons – the season still was mildly disappointing.
A shaky defense was the reason for the second-half swoon. The Yellow Jackets gave up at least 24 points in six of their last seven games, and surrendered at least 30 in each of the last four. Above all, the run defense must improve.
The flipside: The Yellow Jackets ranked second nationally in rush offense, at 316.5 yards per game. As usual, the passing attack wasn't much, and get this: No wide receiver on this season's roster made a catch last season. Tech is the only team in the nation that can make that claim.
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in ACC (tied for 2nd in ACC Coastal)
Coach: Paul Johnson (34-19, 5th season; 141-58, 16th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (7) – T Ray Beno, C Jay Finch, G Will Jackson, RB David Sims, RB Orwin Smith, G Omoregie Uzzi, QB Tevin Washington. Defense (6) – LB Jeremiah Attaochu, E Izaan Cross, S Isaiah Johnson, LB Quayshawn Nealy, CB Rod Sweeting, CB Louis Young. Special teams (2) – K Justin Moore, P Sean Poole.
Fast fact: While Tech has been to 15 consecutive bowls, it also has lost at least five games in nine of the past 11 seasons. The Jackets have been to one “traditional” New Year's Day bowl since 1967, the Orange after the 2009 season.
Tech's triple-option attack should be even better than it was last season, thanks to the return of four starting linemen (it would've been all five but T Phil Smith transferred to UCF).
Senior QB Tevin Washington will be in his second season as the starter; he rushed for a team-leading 987 yards and 14 TDs last season, but was bad as a passer (49.3 percent completion rate). While Washington is adept at running the option, he has to improve as a passer.
Washington will be working with experienced running backs. Junior David Sims and senior Orwin Smith combined for 1,313 yards and 18 TDs last season. Smith averaged an unreal 10.1 yards per carry – but only got 61 carries. He was banged-up late in the season, but still didn't have more than nine carries in a game all season. The one new starter in the backfield should be sophomore Tony Hill or mighty-mite junior Robert Godhigh (5 feet 7 inches/188 pounds). Backups B.J. Bostic and Charles Perkins also will see time.
The receiving corps is a wasteland; only two wide receivers had receptions last season and both are gone. Tech's passing attack isn't a sophisticated one, but there is tremendous potential for big plays because every opposing defensive back is so focused on stopping the run. Tech looks to have talent at the position, but it obviously is untested. Senior Chris Jackson, junior Jeremy Moore and sophomores Jeff Greene and Darren Waller are the top four candidates. Each is a big, physical guy.
The line should be a team strength. Senior G Omoregie Uzzi is a returning All-ACC performer and should contend for All-America honors. The other three returning starters are juniors: T Ray Beno, C Jay Finch and G Will Jackson. Sophomore Morgan Bailey and junior Tyler Kidney will battle for the vacant job at tackle, and coaches also are high on sophomore G Shaquille Mason and redshirt freshman T Bryan Chamberlain.
Tech runs a 3-4 set and lost two starting linemen; in addition, the Yellow Jackets also need two new starting linebackers. At least the secondary looks good.
Coordinator Al Groh has some speed to work with, so look for him to be more aggressive this fall than he has been in the past two seasons.
The returning starter up front is E Izaan Cross, who underachieved a bit last season. He should be joined in the starting lineup by senior T T.J. Barnes, who is an absolute giant (6 feet 7 inches/345 pounds) and either junior Euclid Cummings or Emmanuel Dieke at end. Barnes is a three-year backup who has yet to fulfill his potential. Dieke has some pass-rush skills and could become an all-star.
Junior Jeremiah Attaochu is Tech's top linebacker. He battled injuries last season but still managed six sacks and has all-league potential. Sophomore Quayshawn Nealy is the other returning starter at linebacker; he played well down the stretch and had a huge interception return for a TD in the bowl loss to Utah. Juniors Daniel Drummond and Justin Watts, who combined for 59 stops last season, appear ready to step into the starting lineup. In addition, redshirt freshman Jabari Hunt-Days, a 252-pounder, is expected to add a physical presence at inside linebacker and should see plenty of time backing up Nealy and Drummond.
The secondary could be quite good. Junior S Isaiah Johnson is Tech's leading returning tackler (78), and he also had three interceptions and three pass breakups. CBs Rod Sweeting and Louis Young combined for 108 tackles, four interceptions and 15 pass breakups last fall. The likely new starter at safety is sophomore Fred Holton, though junior Jemea Thomas, who also can play corner, is a possibility. Depth is good in the secondary.
This area wasn't so special last season. P Sean Poole averaged just 39.7 yards per attempt and K Justin Moore was 11-of-17 and didn't make a field goal longer than 41 yards.
The return jobs will be decided in fall camp; there are returnees at each position, but the staff didn't pick anyone coming out of spring ball.
One positive was that the coverage units were good last season.
Four of the first five games are at home, but the first month of the season still is difficult. There also are tough stretches in October and November.
The only road game in September is the opener, against division favorite Virginia Tech. It's not a stretch to think the winner is going to wear the Coastal Division crown. There also are September games against division foes Miami and Virginia, meaning Tech should have an excellent idea of where it will finish in the division by the end of the first month of the season.
October brings games against Clemson (road) and BYU (home), and the Yellow Jackets end the season by playing three of four on the road, including visits to North Carolina and Georgia.
In short, the schedule is filled with tough road games.
A small favor from the schedule-maker: Tech doesn't face preseason league favorite Florida State.
Tech's triple-option attack is extremely difficult to handle for opponents with just one week of preparation, so it's a big negative that the Yellow Jackets open with Virginia Tech. Because it's the opening game, the Hokies can spend all sorts of practice time defending the option.
Regardless, Georgia Tech has the talent to have a solid season. An experienced offensive line is a huge plus for an option-based attack, and the Yellow Jackets should have one of the best lines in the league. If Washington becomes just adequate as a passer and if Groh can coax solid play out of a rebuilt defensive line, this team could win 10 games.
More likely, though, is an eight- or nine-win season and yet another second-tier bowl.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 48th nationally
The buzz: As usual, the Yellow Jackets filled the majority of their class with Georgia and Florida prospects, this year, 12 of their 17 signees are from those two states. But the top prospect is from Alabama; ATH Justin Thomas had offers from the likes of Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida and was a Crimson Tide commitment at one point. He will be given a chance to play quarterback. The top in-state prospect is DE Francis Kallon, who was a late-bloomer at Lawrenceville (Ga.) Central Gwinnett. Adding depth to the defense will be in-state DT Pat Gamble and DB D.J. White. Making his way from Florida will be ATH Marcus Allen of smalltown Hilliard. Allen received a majority of his recruiting interest as a defensive back, but will be given a chance to line up at running back for Tech. Others from Florida include ATH Dennis Andrews of Tallahassee Godby and DB Lynn Griffin of Jacksonville Trinity Christian, who brings size and playmaking ability. – Mike Farrell, Rivals.com
WR Darren Waller. After playing mostly special teams as a freshman last season, Waller is expected to start. At 6 feet 5 and 230 pounds, he should be a matchup nightmare for opposing corners. Waller boasts 4.5 speed and has the potential to become a big-play receiver like Demaryius Thomas was in 2009. – Kelly Quinlan, JacketsOnline.com
For more on Georgia Tech throughout the season, check out JacketsOnline.com
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