8/28: Jacksonville State (Th.)
9/6: @Boston College
9/13: @Virginia Tech
9/20: Mississippi State
11/1: Florida State
11/8: @North Carolina
11/20: Miami (Th.)
Skip: North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Maryland
QB: Josh Nesbitt (So.)
BB: Jonathan Dwyer (So.)
AB: Greg Smith (rJr.)
AB: Roddy Jones (rFr.)
WR: Demaryius Thomas (rSo.)
WR: Correy Earls (rSo.)
LT: Andrew Gardner (5Sr.)
LG: A.J. Smith (5Sr.)
C: Dan Voss (rJr.)
RG: Cord Howard (rJr.)
RT: David Brown (5Sr.)
DE: Derrick Morgan (So.)
DT: Vance Walker (Sr.)
DT: Darryl Richard (5Sr.)
DE: Michael Johnson (Sr.)
WLB: Anthony Barnes (rSo.)
MLB: Brad Jefferson (So.)
SLB: Shane Bowen (Jr.)
CB: Jerrard Tarrant (rFr.)
RV: Morgan Burnett (So.)
FS: Dominique Reese (rSo.)
CB: Jahi Word-Daniels (Sr.)
P: Scott Blair (So.)
Coach: Paul Johnson (1st year)
(Italics indicate new starter.)
Media prediction: 4th, Coastal Division
2007 1st team: RB Tashard Choice (graduated), OT Andrew Gardner, DT Vance Walker, K Travis Bell (graduated), P Durant Brooks (graduated)
2007 2nd team: C Kevin Tuminello (graduated), DE Darrell Robertson (graduated), LB Philip Wheeler (graduated)
2007 HM: S Jamal Lewis (graduated)
2008 preseason: OT Andrew Gardner, DE Michael Johnson, DT Vance Walker
Forget the spread at Michigan or the return of the old-school at Nebraska. The most earth-shattering change brought about by a coaching switch at any school in the country is at Georgia Tech, where Paul Johnson brings his running game of doom from Annapolis into the BCS big-time. The soap-opera types will be wondering how Tech’s wide receivers and tight ends will react to being converted almost exclusively to blockers. The X’s and O’s folks will be curious to see if the offense that Army could never stop can produce the same results in a BCS conference.
Obviously, this is where all eyes will be. Johnson will be working without last year’s two most familiar faces; QB Taylor Bennett decided this offense wasn’t for him and transferred, and RB Tashard Choice graduated. Josh Nesbitt, as the most athletic QB on the roster, is the front-runner for most of the snaps, but Johnson isn’t afraid to sub in and out at this position, and Calvin Booker or Bryce Dykes, or both, could find themselves under center at some point.
Johnson’s system primarily runs a B-back and two A-backs rather than the standard tailbacks and tight ends. The B-back is essentially a fullback – think Navy’s Kyle Eckel and Adam Ballard. The A-backs typically line up behind the B-back, and also act as a slot-back type. Reggie Campbell and Zerbin Singleton do this at Navy and typically rack up 70-odd carries and about 13 catches, leading their team in the latter category. Highlighting the need for athleticism and the ability to catch the ball is the fact that last year’s leading receiver, Greg Smith, will be expected to pull these duties.
Because Smith is moved to the backfield, redshirt sophomore Demaryius Thomas becomes the primary receiving threat; the only question is how much receiving he’ll be doing. Thomas’ size (6’3”, 229 lbs.) makes him ideal for this offense given the amount of blocking wide receivers are expected to do, but his playmaking skills are something that Paul Johnson didn’t have at Navy and could add a new dimension to the offense.
The offensive line at first glance appears to contain a lot of new starters, but in truth it’s only been shuffled around. C Dan Voss is a former starter at guard; the two projected guard starters (A.J. Smith and Cord Howard) are former starters at right tackle. Blocking experience is not at all lacking, especially at left tackle, where Andrew Gardner is a fixture and an all-ACC selection.
Paul Johnson’s offense as a whole, when clicking to its fullest extent, is an absolute treat to watch. It’s part old-school wishbone and part new-school spread. The triple option is heavily featured, as is the oldest play in the book, the fullback plunge into the line. Jonathan Dwyer will be asked either to carry the ball into the pile or go there as a blocker nearly every play. Passing is practically nowhere to be found. Navy is the anti-Texas Tech; 1st in rushing offense and 120th in passing offense. When this offense is running on all cylinders it is spectacularly unstoppable. Two examples:
- In the 2004 Poinsettia Bowl against New Mexico, the Navy defense stuffed the Lobos on fourth and goal at the 1. Navy’s offense got the ball back with 2 minutes to play in the third quarter. The Midshipmen then proceeded to choke the life out of New Mexico with a 26-play drive that lasted over 14 minutes (almost an entire quarter!) and culminated in a chip shot field goal. New Mexico trailed 31-19 when Navy got the ball and there was more than a whole quarter to play. The next time they touched the ball there was 2:07 left in the game.
- Last year’s Navy-North Texas game was a barnburner; Navy won 74-62, in regulation. IN REGULATION. Yes, this is a record. How many times did they attempt a pass? Six. Six throws. All game long. Further, Navy did not benefit from short fields. Not one of their scoring drives began in UNT territory. At over 10 yards per carry, Navy took advantage of a weak North Texas defense and relied on a running game that was particularly explosive that afternoon.
So will this translate to ACC success? Maybe the better question would be, Is the ACC ready for this? One disadvantage that Navy operates at is this: They do not generally have lineman-sized linemen. The Naval Academy requires strict height and weight standards, and while football players routinely are wink-winked through that process, the Department of Defense is only so forgiving. The average size of Navy’s projected offensive line starters is 273; the only Georgia Tech projected starter that small is David Brown at 271. Tech averages nearly 290 lbs. The added beef will go a long way toward compensating for the heightened level of competition.
It would be fitting if Tech were going to run some wackity defensive scheme like a 3-3-5, but this is a fairly plain-Jane 4-3 system. Tech returns just four starters but the real loss is former Wahoo DB Jon Tenuta, who Johnson didn’t retain as defensive coordinator and who left for an “assistant head coach” gig at Notre Dame.
On the field there’s plenty to replace too, starting with the top four tacklers, and most especially LBs Philip Wheeler and Gary Guyton. Fortunately there’s plenty of talent stepping in. The leading returning tackler is rover Morgan Burnett, who wasn’t even a starter, but he begins this season as one. Next on the tackle list is senior CB Jahi Word-Daniels, one of the four returning starters. Burnett and Word-Daniels also happen to be the only Tech defenders to intercept any passes last year.
The defensive front is very stout, with two preseason all-ACC picks; again, one of whom wasn’t even a starter last year. DE Michael Johnson played almost exclusively in passing situations but will get his big chance this year. Vance Walker was a 2007 third-team All-American.
The only place the Tech defense may be shaky is at linebacker. Shane Bowen and Anthony Barnes split starting duties last year; this year they each have a spot of their own as Barnes moves to the weak side. Tenuta liked to blitz – a lot – and as a result the linebackers picked up multitudes of sacks. That won’t be the case this year, and it should simplify things for the relatively inexperienced linebacking corps as well as take some pressure off the very young defensive backfield as well.
GT had both the conference’s best punter and kicker in 2007; that’s not going to be the case this year as they’re both going to have to be replaced. Scott Blair looks to have the inside track on the punter job, but Johnson hasn’t yet decided who’s going to kick field goals. Blair could be the one here too; the most likely other option is junior Mohamed Yahiaoui, who is already the conference consecutive vowels leader and probably should win just so we can find out how many different ways ESPN announcers can butcher the name. (It’s “ya-hee-OW-ee”.)
Also unresolved is the returners issue; the depth chart simply says “TBA”. Dwyer handled a few kicks last year but given the punishment he’ll be taking each offensive play, he’s likely to be pulled from these duties.
Paul Johnson was damn near a miracle worker at Navy. The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy was the sole property of Air Force for many years; there are now two graduated classes of seniors out in the fleet that never lost to either service academy, and Navy’s hoping to send a third consecutive senior class off the same way. Astute readers may note, however, that the above examples of spectacular offensive displays came against non-BCS competition; really astute readers will remember that New Mexico had the #8 rush defense that year. Navy was 11-13 against BCS opposition (after you take away Johnson's 2-10 first year, in which he was still sweeping out the cobwebs left behind by Charlie Weatherbie) but most of those 11 wins were against the likes of Duke and Vanderbilt. Last year they got beat by Wake Forest by 20 points, but averaged nearly 5 yards a carry. Turnovers did them in – they lost 3 fumbles. And their bowl game loss to Boston College was a heartbreaker, thanks to a very badly timed fumble and a last second field goal. Navy averaged 5.5 yards a carry in that one.
So what’s this mean for Georgia Tech? Johnson will be running his offense against much more talented competition, but for the most part will also have more talented players. And he’s already had a measure of success against the ACC. Defenses will need time to adapt and probably will need more than a year. You don’t just stop the offense by shoving 9 men in the box; Johnson’s too smart for that. There will be growing pains with this offense, but more of them will be with defensive coordinators trying to figure this one out. Georgia Tech will outpace the media predictions and should end up in a pretty good bowl. It’s not yet their year to break UGA’s streak in the rivalry, but even the Gator Bowl is not out of reach for the Yellow Jackets.
Monday, August 4, 2008
season preview: Georgia Tech