Media Q&A with Johnson, Freeman and Jeune

Kelly Quinlan, Publisher
Jackets Online
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Jeremy Brevard/USAToday

CHARLOTTE-- Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, defensive end KeShun Freeman and receiver Ricky Jeune fielded questions from the media at the ACC Kickoff. Here is what they had to say.

PAUL JOHNSON: This is our 10th year at Georgia Tech as a coaching staff. We open the season on Labor Day night in the Chick-fil-A kickoff game. We're really excited to have the opportunity to display our program on a national level against a quality opponent, University of Tennessee. We return 16 starters from our team a year ago. Was really proud of them and the way we finished the season. In the last half of the year I thought we had a really good football team, and looking forward to building on that and getting started this year. We've got a tremendous schedule again. I think I saw where somebody had ranked our schedule as the seventh toughest in the country, but we've had a good off-season, a good spring practice, and looking forward to getting started.

While we do have 16 returning starters, we have to replace some key guys. Of course a three-year starter at quarterback, Justin Thomas is gone, who was a really gifted player, and then our kicker and punter that nobody talks about, but as a coach is a big deal, and we feel like we've got some young men that can step up and fill in, but until you see it on the field, you never know.Defensively a good nucleus coming back. We have to replace a couple guys up front. Pat Gamble was a team leader and a good player for us, and then P.J. Davis who has been a leader for three years at linebacker. But we do return the entire secondary, so whoever ends up playing quarterback is going to be surrounded by a lot of guys who played a lot of football, and like I said, I'm going to turn it over to the players now and I'll be back up shortly to answer any questions.

Q. What are your expectations for the season?

KESHUN FREEMAN: I'm very excited going into this season because I've seen my teammates do some really great work in this off-season, whether it be in the weight room, whether it be on the field conditioning. I'm excited to see how we do in camp because we have a lot of stuff that we can add on to last season, so I'm expecting a really great year from everybody. Personally I'm trying to do better with pass rushing, trying to be more of a productive player than I have been in the past.

Q. What you can say not only about yourself but on the other side is the defensive end, Antonio Simmons, how you guys play off each other, and I know you said there's some improvements you want to make, but how you've elevated each other's games going into this year.

KESHUN FREEMAN: This off-season for the longest I`ve been kind of one of the people that spoke up and been a leader. I kind of stood back and let him develop himself more as a leader on our defensive front and on our defense and on our team. He's a very talented player. He proved that last year being so productive with sacks, with hurry-ups, and I'm excited to finally be starting with him. Me and him are really close. We're like brothers. We prepare all the time with each other. We've been going to the -- indoor to just really work on hand speed, our feet, just making sure that we're doing the small things right so we can go into camp and those things will just be really simple and we can help Coach coach the younger guys.

Q. Coach David Cutcliffe this morning talked about how physical the Coastal Division is. Your thoughts on that?

KESHUN FREEMAN: Yeah, to me we are a really, really, really strong group of people. Each team -- a lot of people say we have equal chances, but each team really wants to win and be the Coastal representation, the ACC Championship. Yeah, we are very physical, man, because everybody is going to be that top spot.

Q. Six out of seven wins to end the season last year. Every year is different, but how much momentum can you carry over from one season to the next?

KESHUN FREEMAN: Yeah, man, we use that and we kind of keep it in the back of our mind, and we're very thankful for it. I think as an older group of people, we played on one of Coach Johnson's worst teams and one of Coach Johnson's best teams, so we use each season as an example of what could have happened, what has happened, and what we can take from those seasons to carry over into the future.So that's why this off-season we're kind of excited because we've worked so hard. I mean, our coaches really kind of helped us step our game up by challenging us to a new level when we're running and when we're in the weight room. Like I said, I'm very excited to go into camp and see who earns positions and who comes out on top, so when we go into the first game we are very happy with what we're going into it with.

Q. You've started in every game of your college career. That translates to leadership. What are you supposed to do with the new kids coming into the system? What is your role there?

KESHUN FREEMAN: So right now I'm kind of serving as like a freshman ambassador. I'm pretty much showing them this is what you're getting into, and your journey is not going to be the same as my journey. My journey wasn't the same as the people that came before me. But in everything you do, make sure that you're motivated, you're going hard in every drill. If you're in the classroom, you're going hard so you can play on the field, and just making sure that they start off very strong so they can finish stronger.

Q. Ricky, as a wide receiver, obviously in this style of offense, just what you can say about why Georgia Tech was the right fit for you and how a wide receiver finds their comfort level in an offense that's obviously built for that run?

RICKY JEUNE: Well, in an offense like this you get a lot of one-on-one coverages, and that's just a receiver's dream, one-on-one coverage. So if you get a one-on-one coverage -- if you know you're getting one-on-one coverage, then why not just come here and just get one-on-one coverage the whole game.

Q. Ricky, I feel like I've seen more style here in the Coastal Division here. Is there a little pride you guys take in style, a little competition going on off the field with you guys?

RICKY JEUNE: No competition. I just decided to go with the bowtie for Media Day. KeShun over here thinks he has more style than me.

Q. You guys get a chance to go to Clemson later in the season. What does it mean to play the defending National Champion on the road, and what does that contest mean to you?

RICKY JEUNE: Yeah, playing Clemson is always great, man. They won the national title last year, and it's just a great opportunity, man. We know it's not going to be easy going over there, and we just have to come with our best "A" game.

Q. Your very first game of the season against Tennessee; what is your feeling about going into that game? There's always a big rivalry between ACC and SEC. I know you haven't had a whole lot of practice with the gang yet, but what is your feeling, your personal feeling, and maybe what are your teammates' feelings about that being a very beginning game as opposed to some of the lesser division schools?

RICKY JEUNE: Our team is excited to play Tennessee in the first game. Last year we opened up at Boston College in Ireland, and this year we get to open up against Tennessee in a new stadium, so that's a great opportunity for us. Like KeShun said, this off-season has been great for us, and we're looking forward to it.

Q. Given the style of offense that is there at Georgia Tech, generally you're really not quite sure when it is your number might be called. How do you maintain that next-up mentality? How do you stay prepped for that next play call?

RICKY JEUNE: I mean, whether it's a pass or blocking, I take pride in my blocking, so if I'm going 100 percent with blocking, then I'm already ready for when we pass it. Just being committed and going 100 percent.

Q. Coach, you talked about having to replace Justin Thomas. You're not alone. Four of your fellow coaches in the Coastal have to replace quarterbacks, as well. You've been through this process before. What do you look for in managing the process in bringing somebody new?

PAUL JOHNSON: Right. Well, if we've been doing our job as a coaching staff, we've got guys there in the program that are ready to play. I think a year ago, Matthew Jordan had to go up to Blacksburg, which is a really tough place to play and start the game, and we were fortunate that he won the game there. I think that gave him some confidence and gave our guys some confidence in him.Then this spring, he had an injury and missed most of the spring, so it gave some of our young guys, TaQuon Marshall, a chance, and Jay Jones and Luke Johnson, who were both redshirt freshmen who may actually be the most talented kids we've had at Georgia Tech since I've been there at quarterback.I feel good about that position. You know, it's Matthew's job to lose, but I think we've got four guys at that position that I could call a game for right now, and they're going to have the luxury of being surrounded -- it's very similar to three years ago when Justin was first starting and he was surrounded by a bunch of guys that had experience and had played a lot of football. And for us, four of the five offensive linemen are back, all the running backs and the leading receivers, so he's going to be surrounded, whoever it is, by a group of guys that have played a lot, and that season worked out pretty good. We ended up in the Orange Bowl and beating Mississippi State. Maybe hopefully we'll have another year like that.

Q. You just talked about replacing your quarterback, but I'm guessing you might be a little more concerned about replacing two kickers with 97 starts between them.

PAUL JOHNSON: No question. You know, very few people have asked about that, and more than likely both our kicker and our punter will be freshmen. We think we've recruited guys that can step up and do that, but until they do it in a game, you never really know. So you know, the key to that is let's not punt much and hopefully we won't have to kick many field goals.

Q. You spoke on a decade at Georgia Tech. Just what you can say you've seen, developed, not only with your program but with this conference as it's grown, changed, divisions and teams coming in and whatnot with Syracuse and Louisville and so forth, how you've seen the last 10 years in the ACC really become what they are today?

PAUL JOHNSON: Well, I don't think there's any question that the league is much better today than it was the day that I came into the league 10 years ago. I think that several of the programs have made a huge commitment, both financially and through other levels of support, to try to get to the top level. And they've achieved that.And if you look -- I don't care what metric you would want to measure it by, whether it's head to head against other Power Five, two of the last four National Championships, the bowl record, the record against the SEC, whatever you want to measure it by -- I think you could make a pretty good case that right now the ACC is probably the premier league in the country or has been in the last couple of years anyway.It's drastically better, and I think it's kind of forced the other programs to come along. I was joking with somebody earlier, I said, when I first came into the league, I'd go into the spring meetings or I'd go to one of these things and you'd look around the room to the coaches, and I'd think, okay, that's one we can win and that's one we can win, and now they're probably looking at me.There are no easy games. The other thing that's kind of transitioned, I think the divisions -- when I first came into the league 10 years ago, it was kind of flipped a little bit on the national level. The Coastal had the higher-ranked teams and they were the teams that -- and now for the last couple years it's been the Atlantic. But I think there's good balance in the league if you look at the two divisions head to head. I think it's probably pretty close, the won-lost. In fact, the Coastal may have a little bit of an advantage, and I think there's good teams all up and down through the league.

Q. I know you talked about being a premier conference. Now you guys obviously get to play an SEC team right off the bat. Can you just talk about the match-up with Tennessee to open up the season?

PAUL JOHNSON: Yeah, well, like I say, we're excited to play in the Chick-fil-a kickoff game, especially in Atlanta on national TV on Labor Day night and against Tennessee. We play SEC teams every year. We had the opportunity to play three a year ago. We were fortunate we were 3-0 against them. Our guys look at it as a challenge. But first and foremost, we're playing for Georgia Tech, but you can't hide from the fact that people are going to compare the leagues.We understand that, and we embrace it. Certainly Tennessee has got a lot of tradition and a good football program. I think Georgia Tech and Tennessee had a huge rivalry for years. Last time they played was in the '80s. Both teams originally were in the Southeastern Conference, so I know that our fan base and their fan base are excited to see the two teams get back together and play.

Q. Working with a new quarterback obviously and you have a new quarterbacks coach, the pessimist would say that that's a daunting task. The optimist may say that it's a world of opportunity to try to get all that matched up. Where do you land on it?

PAUL JOHNSON: You know, first let me address the quarterback coach, Craig Candeto, who played quarterback for me at Navy, and I think our guys would tell you, there's probably a couple of quarterback coaches there. I feel very comfortable with Craig. He's a guy that I coached and our other guys have coached. He was a graduate assistant at one time in our program. So that part of it I don't have any concerns about.I think what you have to do is once we identify who the starting quarterback is, you have to mold the offense to their strengths. That's what we tried to do with Justin, and that's what we'll try to do with this guy, whoever it may end up being. If it's Matthew, there's certain things that he does better than Justin, and there's certain things that Justin did better than him, so you'll want to stay away from what Justin did well and do what Matthew does well. The same for any other of the quarterbacks. But I am not concerned about that position. I think we'll be fine there.

Q. When did you recognize some of the scheduling imbalance, and what was the process to address it to get some of the rules changed with the league office?

PAUL JOHNSON: I've got to be really careful with that, I guess. I think that the best thing I can say about that is that I think there's a new rule going into place next year that makes everything a little more fair and a little more equitable, and that's all as coaches anybody could ask for. To the credit of the league, they looked at some of the stats and some of the stuff that was brought forward, and the athletic directors and everybody in the league decided to make a move to try to make it more equitable.

Q. You have virtually all your running backs back. Is playing running back at Georgia Tech, either A-back or B-back, a little more complicated than at another school, and what part does experience play in the timing of the offense and ball security?

PAUL JOHNSON: Well, I think any time you have experience, it's a good thing, no matter what offense. I really think quite honestly that the offense thing gets blown way out of proportion. You know, if you're a running back -- it's like people want to talk about wide receivers at Georgia Tech. We probably got more wide receivers in the NFL than any team in the league. Everybody, well, what's it like, you don't get to the next level or you don't catch the ball. Now, we ask our guys to block, and we might not throw it as much, but we're playing with two wide receivers where everybody else is playing with four. So all four guys that play wide receiver at North Carolina aren't going to catch 80 balls. You know, it's divided.It's the same thing at running back. You know, Dedrick Mills would be a good football player in any offense, I think. He's a good player for us. The same thing you could say at A-back with J.J. Green or Qua Searcy or whoever it might be. So some of the skill set might be a little different where you line up, but the bottom line in football is the team that blocks and tackles and takes care of the ball the best is going to win. And if people think that what we do is different and it gets in their head, that's good. If they think we're a little more physical, that's good. We'll take all the advantage we can get, but I can tell you from coaching 38 years, there's not that big a difference as people would want to make it out to be.

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