With the 2011 Fall camp underway, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will face many obstacles in their quest to get back on top of the ACC.
From filling holes left by players that have left the team to finding the necessary leadership, Tech will have its hands full preparing for the upcoming season. But after a 6-7 season and losing key players on both offense and defense, the Jackets have many reasons to be optimistic heading into this year.
Here are five questions about this year's team that will hopefully be answered by the end of fall camp.
Replacing Nesbitt won't be easy, but the Jackets will have some options.
This will be the first year under Coach Paul Johnson that Tech will have a quarterback to start the season not named Joshua Nesbitt.
Nesbitt led the Jackets to an ACC Championship (I saw it with my own eyes, no matter what the NCAA says) and a BCS bowl game appearance. He also holds the record for the most rushing yards in ACC history for a QB. Replacing him is not an easy task, and the competition is wide open.
The candidates include RS-Jr Tevin Washington—who is the only QB left with game experience—RS-Fr Synjyn Days, Fr Vad Lee and Fr Demond Smith. All four quarterbacks will receive attention from the coaching staff throughout fall camp. Hopefully someone will step up and separate themselves from the pack.
This is a group with plenty of talent, so whoever the starter may end up being they will be capable of leading this prolific rushing offense. This battle may last through the first few games of the season, however, as Georgia Tech starts with three non-conference games, which have the potential to showcase multiple quarterbacks.
My Answer: Tevin Washington is likely to win this job. He kept his hold on the number one spot through spring practice, even after injuring his MCL on the last play of the season. In addition, he's been a solid leader in the locker room during this summer, and seems to be back to 100 percent going into this season.
A focal point in Coach Johnson's offense, the B-Back position has seen high productivity the last 3 years.
The Yellow Jackets also begin the season trying to find a starter at another key offensive position, B-Back. Under Coach Johnson, this position has seen 1,000-yard rushers in each of his previous seasons at Tech.
Replacing that kind of production will not be an easy task, but the list of candidates for the starting job is deep. RS-Sr Preston Lyons has the most experience coming back at this position, but pressure will be on him as backs such as RS-Fr Charles Perkins and RS-So David Sims will also be competing for time.
Preston Lyons showed in the spring he has the blocking abilities necessary to be the starter, but this job is very much up for grabs and could see a platoon system in place, unless a clear starter shows himself.
My Answer: Preston Lyons is the odds-on favorite to receive the most playing time. He has set a new vertical leap record at the position this off-season and has the most understanding of the offense at this point. I don't see him as the only B-Back to get touches though, so look for the explosive Perkins and elusive Sims to receive some carries this year, even on critical downs.
Sylvester looks to provide leadership to a promising linebacking core.
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, this year should be better in the second year of Coach Al Groh’s 3-4 defensive scheme.
At the heart of any improvements will be the linebackers. With all three defensive line starters returning, the linebackers should be able to benefit through better gaps and pressure on opposing backfields.
Providing leadership for this position group should lie in the hands of Sr Steven Sylvester and Jr Julian Burnett. They bring the most experience to the table as far as linebackers go at Tech, and have shown play-making potential in past seasons.
Joining them looks to be So Jeremiah Attaochu and RS-So Daniel Drummond. Injuries held back this group from playing together in the spring, but consequently, the depth was revealed at the T-Day game as RS-Fr Quayshawn Nealy and RS-So Brandon Watts received more playing time.
Playing time could also go to some incoming freshmen. Jabari Hunt-Days, Tremayne McNair and others hope to push the upperclassmen.
My Answer: The linebackers should perform better this year, as talent is abundant and there is a better understanding of expectations and responsibilities in the 3-4 defense. This should be a fun one to watch. You can expect to see some play-makers showcased from this group of the defense.
Sweeting will be one of the new starters and could be the next good Jacket corner-back.
Moving into the defensive secondary, the Jackets will have to replace all four starters from last year. This will be a challenge, but Coach Johnson is firm in his belief that this secondary has talent.
Despite a lack of starting experience, this secondary will have players that have seen plenty of action. Holding down the corner-back positions will be Jr Rod Sweeting and So Louis Young. Both of these guys have been heavily praised this off-season for their lock-down abilities in seven on seven drills. With more experience they could provide stability in the Tech secondary for the coming seasons.
Joining them in the defensive backfield will be So safety Isaiah Johnson, and either So safety Fred Holton or Sr safety Rashaad Reid.
Johnson was a highly touted recruit and looks to provide some highlights from the free safety position, while Reid has more game experience and will provide leadership to the young secondary. Pushing Reid will be Holton, who despite being young has gained valuable experience on special teams and is a hard hitter.
Outside of these five guys, Jemea Thomas and Michael Peterson could provide quality depth in nickel and dime packages. If we can believe what Coach Johnson has said—and remember all the plays some of these young guys made in their short appearances—the Jackets won't need to worry about a lack of talent in the secondary.
My Answer: Loaded with talent but largely absent in starting experience, this secondary will need to prove they won't be pushed around like the secondary recent years have shown at times.
It's unknown how all of these guys will mesh together, but with a favorable schedule this backfield should receive some confidence early on, and could carry it through the entire season. This secondary may not improve on the results from previous seasons under Coach Johnson, but look for them to get better as the season wears on.
Tarrant struggled last year, but was a consistent returner who protected the ball during his time at Tech.
Finally, moving onto special teams, which was a liability at times last year. Tech will need to fill the voids left by former kicker Scott Blair and former returner Jerrard Tarrant. Tech's special teams ranked as one of the worst in the nation last year, and needs to improve to help this team win more games.
Tech returns many kicking candidates for the starting punting and kicking jobs, including: So K Justin Moore, RS-So P Sean Poole, RS-Sr P/K Chandler Anderson and a handful of other inexperienced punters and kickers.
Coach Johnson has shown how wide open these jobs are by letting multiple guys have chances to perform during the spring T-Day game, with nobody really stepping up. It's likely these jobs won't be decided very easily and could be similar to the B-Back position, where platooning might be an option.
Possible returners for the Jackets haven't made a splash either, and uncertainty over who will be fielding returns is similar to the current kicking situation. Tech needs to hope that these groups elevate their level of play, as it became evident at times last year that special teams can cost a team games.
My Answer: Kicker Justin Moore and punter Sean Poole were the leaders heading into fall camp, but I wouldn't be surprised to see changes in the depth chart if any kickers or punters perform more consistently.
I wouldn't be surprised to see a combination of A-Backs returning the ball for the jackets. RS-Sr Roddy Jones, Jr Orwin Smith, and So B.J. Bostic all have playmaking skills, and look to be the leaders to win the returning job going into fall camp. All these jobs are very much up for the taking, however, and may not be settled the entire season.
Will the dominoes fall the right way for Tech to return to form?
The Yellow Jackets have questions all over the place, which is to be expected following a losing season—their first since 1996.
Coach Johnson isn't fazed by these issues, however, and has expectations for this team as he did for each of the teams in previous years. If this team really does live up to their potential and doesn't slip up early on in the schedule, they could roll their way to a decent season. They could possibly even return to the ACC championship game if the cards fall their way in the coastal division.
Tech seems to surprise and overachieve in years like this, where expectations in the fan base are low. So don't be shocked to see a hungry Jackets team fight their way back into conference relevance and once again get fans excited about Tech football.