Saturday, August 9, 2014

2014 season preview: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets


8/30: Wofford
9/6: @ Tulane
9/13: Georgia Southern
9/20: @ Virginia Tech
9/27: BYE
10/4: Miami
10/11: Duke
10/18: @ North Carolina
10/25: @ Pittsburgh
11/1: Virginia
11/8: NC State
11/15: Clemson
11/22: BYE
11/29: @ Georgia

Skip: Boston College, Florida State, Louisville, NC State, Wake Forest

2013 results:

Elon: W, 70-0
Duke: W, 38-14
North Carolina: W, 28-20
Virginia Tech: L, 17-10
Miami: L, 45-30
BYU: L, 38-20
Syracuse: W, 56-0
Virginia: W, 35-25
Pittsburgh: W, 21-10
Clemson: L, 55-31
Alabama A&M: W, 66-7
Georgia: L, 41-34
Mississippi: L, 25-17 (Music City Bowl)

Record: 7-6 (5-3); 4th, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Justin Thomas (rSo.)
BB: Zach Laskey (Sr.)
AB: Synjyn Days (5Sr.)
AB: Tony Zenon (5Sr.)
WR: DeAndre Smelter (Sr.)
WR: Micheal Summers (rSo.)
LT: Chris Griffin (rFr.)
LG: Trey Braun (rJr.)
C: Freddie Burden (rSo.)
RG: Shaq Mason (5Sr.)
RT: Bryan Chamberlain (rJr.)

DE: Roderick Rook-Chungong (rSo.)
NT: Shawn Green (5Sr.)
DT: Adam Gotsis (Jr.)
DE: Tyler Stargel (rSo.)
LB: Quayshawn Nealy (5Sr.)
LB: Tyler Marcordes (rJr.)
CB: Lynn Griffin (rSo.)
CB: D.J. White (Jr.)
NS: Demond Smith (rJr.)
SS: Isaiah Johnson (5Sr.)
FS: Jamal Golden (rJr.)

K: Harrison Butker (So.)
P: Ryan Rodwell (rSo.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Paul Johnson (7th season)

Media prediction: 5th place, Coastal


2013 1st team: OG Shaq Mason
2013 2nd team: DE Jeremiah Attaochu
2013 3rd team: none
2013 HM: RB Robert Godhigh, RB David Sims
2014 preseason: none

(Italics indicate departed player.)

You have to wonder: is the Paul Johnson era wearing thin at Georgia Tech?  I hate to be that guy, stirring up hot seat stuff, but GT is settling into mediocrity lately.  (Yes, we at UVA would kill for this kind of mediocrity right now.  Shut it.)  For the Jackets over the past few years, it's been a string of middling finishes in the division and third-tier bowls.  This year, with a very, very different starting lineup from last, it'll be a challenge to break that pattern, although the Coastal is still ripe for it.

-- Offense

Vad Lee lasted one year as the GT starting quarterback, then declared "the triple option was never really my thing" and bolted for JMU.  How much truth there was to that rather bizarre proclamation, we'll never know, but the anointed starter under center is now Justin Thomas.  Lee turned out to be not all that good running the triple-option; his passing completion percentage of 45.1% was GT's lowest since Joshua Nesbitt's 37.1% in 2010, and Lee was the first quarterback in GT's triple-option history to average fewer than three yards a carry.  Thomas's numbers in very, very limited time last year were better than Lee's, but sample size matters; he never really had the pressure of making the right decisions every single play.

Thomas will also be working with a patchwork offensive line, a far cry from the upperclassman-filled lineup that GT looked to have before last season.  RG Shaq Mason is the anchor and just about the only one of five starters that GT knows for sure it can count on.  RT Bryan Chamberlain began last season as the starter there, but lost that job when Ray Beno came back from injury to find that LG Trey Braun had Wally Pipped him out of that spot.  Braun's ability to do so should lend some confidence to the interior of the line, at least.  But at left tackle, GT lists a redshirt freshman, Chris Griffin, with redshirt junior Errin Joe backing up both tackle spots.  The redshirt freshman can move ahead of the guy in his fourth year in the program because Joe's tenure has been utterly injury-riddled, and he's played only three games in his career.  And at center, Freddie Burden has leapfrogged Thomas O'Reilly for the job; Burden redshirted 2012 and missed all of 2013 with a knee injury (this is going to be a theme) and has never played a college game.  O'Reilly, a redshirt junior who spent his first year at Auburn redshirting and then sat his transfer year, has played in six.

Running back is a similar tale of lack-of-experience woe.  Only Zach Laskey has any significant amount of carries in his career; the depth chart is loaded with fifth-year seniors who haven't cracked the lineup much.  Players such as Tony Zenon, Synjyn Days, B.J. Bostic, and Matt Connors - all of them fifth-year seniors who've spent their career as lightly-used backups.  It's the kind of situation where it might not look like it, but the door is wide open for a surprise underclassman to impress and pick up carries as the year goes on - perhaps redshirt freshman Donovan Wilson.

Receiver, of course, is not a position destined to rack up gaudy stats at Georgia Tech, unless there's that one big, fast antelope of a guy who can block and get absurdly wide-open when needed.  Defenses are starting to pick up on the idea that they shouldn't have all 11 players crashing the line, and GT hasn't lately managed to find that one guy.  Darren Waller led GT's receivers in yards last year, but Robert Godhigh (a running back) had the team highs, and Waller sits behind sophomore Micheal Summers as of now.  DeAndre Smelter remains projected to start on the other side.  Right now, though, GT lacks a true threat at the position.

This offense, as constituted now, just doesn't impress.  We'll see if Thomas can run the show effectively; it could clear up a lot of concerns.  The line, though, isn't deep at all - it's kind of scary thin, actually, and GT doesn't seem to have the skill-position guys to put any fear into opposing defenses.  There are a lot of unknowns, but the floor is lower than the ceiling is high, here.

-- Defense

That theme of injuries leading to inexperience continues on the defensive line for GT.  Defensive end is a particularly thin position; prospective starter Roderick Rook-Chungong is another third-year player without a single college snap under his belt.  On the other side, Tyler Stargel has indeed played a few games, but the biggest career highlight listed on his bio is "made a tackle against Miami."  Sparingly-used senior Nick Menocal has been moved up from linebacker to provide DE depth.  The story at defensive end for the Jackets is one of frighteningly little depth and practically no experience whatsoever, anywhere.

It gets better when you move inside, but not much.  Three-tech Adam Gotsis is the one real presence on the D-line; Gotsis was a tremendously disruptive player last year and was second on the team in sacks with 5.5.  Nose tackle, at least at first, will be manned by career backup Shawn Green, but he'll likely be pushed hard by redshirt sophomore Patrick Gamble.  But again, experienced depth is nonexistent here.  The D-line is running mainly on Gotsis, who is the only player on the line with any starts, and some hoped-for potential out of the class of redshirt sophomores.  It's not a great situation.

Things get better as you go further back.  Quayshawn Nealy returns to anchor the linebacking corps, small as that is.  GT has made the full flip-flop from Al Groh's 3-4, to a 4-2-5 with an extra "nickel safety."  But Nealy has been a quality starter for three years now, and the other LB spot should be reasonably set with a competition between productive former reserves Tyler Marcordes and Paul Davis.  Davis only started one game last year, but made 41 tackles and recovered a fumble, while Marcordes picked off two passes and returned one 95 yards for a touchdown.

It's hard to say there's depth at safety with a lot of redshirt freshmen showing up on the two-deep, but if the starters can recover from injuries that kept them out last year, the unit should be in good shape.  Demond Smith will start off at the nickel safety spot, playing as a sort-of linebacker; his listed backup is the versatile Domonique Noble, who might be the first on the field no matter which position requires a rotation.  Smith became a starter last year when Jamal Golden went down after three games with a bum shoulder.  Golden steps in at free safety this year, while Isaiah Johnson starts at strong safety.  Johnson is a longtime starter who missed all of 2013 with a knee injury and opted to take the medical redshirt instead of returning near the end of the year.  Technically there's only one returning starter in the safety corps, but things are in much better shape than that sounds.

At cornerback, GT should be able to rotate three pretty experienced players.  Chris Milton started a handful of games at safety last year while D.J. White stepped into the rotation as a true freshman in 2012, and was promoted to a starting role last year.  Lynn Griffin begins the fall as the starter ahead of Milton, after backing up Louis Young last year, but may give way once Milton gets acclimatized to the position.

Overall, this defense looks at least functional.  Damnation with faint praise, somewhat, but it has some legitimate playmakers in Nealy and Gotsis, and the secondary has a chance to be very good, as long as it doesn't catch the injury bug again.  (If it does, GT is in a lot of trouble.)  The defensive line is going to hold this group back, though; outside of Gotsis (and Green, sorta) there's no functional experience at all.

-- Special teams

Harrison Butker won the kicking job from David Scully last year, and was an improvement but still not fully dependable; he hit a 49-yarder and missed a 30-yarder in the same game last year.  Punter Ryan Rodwell redshirted last year after being called on during his true freshman year in 2012, during which he managed a 39.7-yard average - respectable for a true freshman.

-- Outlook

It's rather easy to see why this team was picked only fifth in the Coastal, and puzzling to see them get a first-place vote.  VT's Brenden Motley got a POY vote from a guy who went to high school with him, or something like that, so there's explanations for everything even if they're stupid ones.  GT does not look at all strong in the trenches, and the offense in general has a lot of work to do.  I like what I see at linebacker and I think there's plenty of potential in the secondary that doesn't have far to go, but inexperience plagues the whole offense and almost the entire D-line.  Bowl eligibility could be an uphill climb; GT will likely start the season 3-0, but three more wins may be hard to find.  There'll be no margin for error against teams like UVA and Pitt, because the Jackets won't be favored against teams like VT, Duke, and Miami.  7 wins looks like the ceiling here, with 5 or 6 being the more likely.


Anonymous said...

Thanks as always for the thorough previews of the other ACC teams.

A question for you: London seems to be pulling in another impressive recruiting class for 2015, especially given how lousy the team has been the last two seasons. Does this in any way affect his place on the hot seat? Or do you think Littlepage will just cut his losses and accept the fact that a lot of these guys might bolt if London is let go?

And I'm curious about your personal opinion for this season - what would it take from London this year to convince you to give him another shot? Let's just say they show marked improvement, cut down dramatically on costly mistakes, beat VT and somehow manage to make (and win) a bowl game. Would you still fire London?

Just curious if you think there's anything to be salvaged, or if this is a foregone conclusion no matter what.

Brendan said...

Except for one, I think I'll save those answers for the UVA previews. Feel free to yell at me if I forget. I will say that I don't think the recruiting class will affect things one iota, nor should it. No offense to Jahvoni Simmons, but there won't be any Quin Blandings or Andrew Browns in this one, and even then I don't think that's what saved his job last year, I think it was because so many of the assistants were on two-year deals.

TBS said...

Back again for another football season. Thanks for your usual extremely thorough well-researched previews. And kudos on getting WR Micheal Summers' name right. Neither the AJC nor our SBN GT blog can seem to manage to do so.

Some minor comments and corrections... true FR KeShun Freeman is currently the projected starter at one DE position, not Rook-Chungong. You are more pessimistic about our offense this season than I am. While it's true that our OL (as well as DL as you noted) has depth and experience issues, last year's OL was plagued with injury issues and performed considerably below expectations for the entire season. Optimism stems from the belief that Justin Thomas (as well as Tim Byerly) are much more comfortable and proficient with the option offense and the reads it requires than Vad Lee was last year. Vad was simply dreadful running the option, and in face we rarely ran it the entire season as a result. He also turned out to be a very poor passer. As it turned out, his heart was never in running the option and he never fully bought into it. The hope is that one of the new QBs will be much more competent in running the option, which after all is our bread and butter. Thomas, in addition, possesses incredible speed and poses a home run threat from the QB position that CPJ has not had during his tenure at Tech.

DeAndre Smelter is an excellent WR despite his inexperience playing the position in college (he was formerly on our baseball team) and I think he will be much more than adequate this year.

TBS said...

Also, AB Donovan Wilson decided to transfer recently so he's no longer an option at that position. It didn't look like he was going to crack the depth chart at any rate.