When I started these opponent previews for 2012, I told you they’d be two parts. The first, which was posted yesterday, was a general outline of the team. The second, which runs today, will be five questions with a beat writer for the other team.
Helping me out with the Georgia Tech one is Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can follow his coverage on Twitter here and read all of his — and the paper’s — Yellow Jackets coverage online here.
To the questions …
AB: Quarterback Tevin Washington handled Paul Johnson’s spread option offense well in his first year as a starter. How do you think he’ll fare in Year 2, especially now that top receiving targets Stephen Hill and Tyler Melton are gone?
KS: “I think he’ll be better, but losing a playmaker like Hill and a hustler like Melton are notable losses, particularly in light of the fact that no receiver on the roster has a single catch. Washington may be the hardest worker on the team and is an unquestioned leader. However, the big question is, as noted by his performance last year, how he can do against tougher competition.
“Washington started out last season hot, throwing 10 touchdowns against one interception in his first five games, part of Georgia Tech’s 6-0 start against the likes of Western Carolina, Kansas and Middle Tennessee State. However, he didn’t throw a single touchdown pass in the Yellow Jackets’ last seven regular-season games. Not surprisingly, they followed up the 6-0 start with a 2-5 finish, including defeats to Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia and the Sun Bowl loss to Utah.
“Washington has shown he’s capable, having led key drives and knocking off then-undefeated Clemson. He’ll be better, but I’m not convinced he’s a difference-making type of quarterback.”
AB: I’ve seen some comments that this might be the best offensive line Johnson has had at Georgia Tech. Do you think that’s true? And what does that mean for a running game that doesn’t seem to lack options?
KS: “It should be, given that Johnson finally has linemen that he recruited who now have considerable experience, and I believe it is. Guard Omoregie Uzzi is a two-time All-ACC pick. Center Jay Finch has plus athletic ability. Tackle Morgan Bailey, injured much of his first two seasons, had a solid spring. Guard Shaquille Mason, who earned playing time as a true freshman, has All-ACC potential.
“The Jackets will bring back a combined 82 career starts, including 25 from Uzzi, and starters at all five spots (Offensive tackle Phil Smith is no longer with the team, but he was in a three-player rotation that split starts). Georgia Tech will also have more depth than they’ve had in the past.
“It should mean that the option plays will be better executed with more alleys to run through. It’s hard to find flaws in an offense that was second in the country in rushing offense and third-down conversion rate, but B-back (fullback) David Sims didn’t have the production expected for that position and the offense wasn’t as explosive in the second half of the season as it was in the first. The line’s improvement and the benefit of Sims’ experience should help in that regard.”
AB: Linebacker Julian Burnett’s football career is over after he suffered a neck injury in the Sun Bowl. How big of a loss is that for Tech’s defense? And to tie in with the Virginia Tech opener more specifically, what does that do to the Jackets’ linebackers with projected starter Daniel Drummond suspended for the game because of a boating under the influence citation?
KS: “It’s a big loss. Burnett led Georgia Tech in tackles the past two seasons and always played full-bore. It says something about him that he was voted a team captain as a junior last season. There are players to replace him that coaches like, but none will obviously have the experience or leadership that he would have brought. Further, as you note, Drummond will be out for the opener. The Jackets will likely start Quayshawn Nealy, a speedy play-maker who started seven games last season as a redshirt freshman, and Jabari Hunt-Days, a redshirt freshman with some pop. Obviously, having to give Hunt-Days his first college start in a pressure-filled environment that will likely be bananas is a huge variable.”
AB: Defensive coordinator Al Groh is in his third year at Georgia Tech with his 3-4 defense. Will that experience in the scheme and what looks like a strong secondary mean an improvement for the group in 2012 or will losing five starters in the front seven mean a step back?
KS: “My sense of things is that the defense will probably be better, though I’m not positive. Georgia Tech lost two starting defensive linemen, end Jason Peters and tackle Logan Walls, who took a combined 65 starts with them. Both were capable players, but not stars (neither was drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent). I think the players coming up behind them, such as ends Euclid Cummings and Emmanuel Dieke, can cover the loss because of the aforementioned experience and a tweak to the scheme that should play to their strengths. They won’t be called on to hold the point as much but rather to be more aggressive and penetrate gaps, which in general better fits their body types and athletic ability.
“A very considerable X-factor is nose tackle T.J. Barnes, Walls’ backup the past three seasons. Barnes has the ability but his motivation has been the question. His weight got up to about 370 pounds at the end of last season, but went down to about 340 by spring. Barnes had a promising spring, and, if he stays on that track, that and the experience and talent in the secondary should make this a better unit.”
AB: Johnson hired a special teams coordinator for the first time since he’s been at Georgia Tech, adding Dave Walkosky of the Canadian Football League. The Yellow Jackets have lost some big games in recent years in part because of special teams breakdowns (David Wilson’s kick return at Lane Stadium in ’10 was one). How big of a difference do you see this making going forward?
KS: “Walkosky comes well-recommended and with a record of success. Assuming he lives up to it, it should help considerably. The Yellow Jackets have failed to make impactful plays on special teams for the entirety of Johnson’s tenure. After staunchly defending his practice of splitting up special-teams duties among his staff, he had a change of heart in hiring Walkosky. Fixes should be easier to make in the punt and kick return games. How he handles punter Sean Poole and kicker Justin Moore will be crucial. Both have shown ability but have lacked consistency.”
So there you have it. One opponent preview in the books. Big thanks to Ken for helping me out.
This should be as crucial of a game as Virginia Tech has next year, considering the winner of this matchup has taken the ACC Coastal Division title in each of the seven years since the title game began. Honestly, there’s no reason to think that won’t be the case this year. Miami lost a ton, North Carolina has a new coach, Duke is Duke and Virginia will be hard-pressed to make another leap like it did last year.
The Labor Day game is an interesting case. You always like extra preparation time against the Yellow Jackets’ spread option offense. And now the Hokies have the entire summer to prepare. At the same time, Virginia Tech hasn’t come out of the gate particularly hot, well … for a long time. Boise State in ’10, Alabama in ’09 and East Carolina in ’08 have shown that. Those were non-conference games that the team was able to bounce back from. This one’s the most important regular season league game the Hokies will play. They can’t afford an early-season slip-up.
My thoughts are that Virginia Tech probably has the advantage. The Hokies have done OK against the option offense in the past, and with no receiving threats on Georgia Tech’s side, that will allow Virginia Tech to dedicate that many more resources to the run. Offensively, the Hokies’ weak spot might be an offensive line that will have to jell, but the Yellow Jackets’ ‘question marks are in the front seven, so you wonder if they can take advantage.
What does everybody else think of this game?