To complement my “Better Know an Opponent” series, I’ve enlisted the help of some knowledgeable beat writers around the country who can help give a little more perspective about the teams the Hokies will be playing in 2013.
For Georgia Tech, I once again asked Ken Sugiura of the the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to help me out. Follow him on Twitter here, read his coverage of the Yellow Jackets here. and read his blog here.
If you missed the first part of my look at Georgia Tech, you can get to it here.
Now to the questions …
AB: It seems like we’ve been hearing about the coming of quarterback Vad Lee for a while now. What’s the feeling about him at Georgia Tech now that he’s been anointed the starter? What does he offer that Tevin Washington didn’t?
KS: There’s a lot of optimism in Lee that he can be the sort of true dual-threat quarterback that Paul Johnson has not had since coming to Georgia Tech in 2008. (Somewhat remarkably, he’s only had two quarterbacks in his first five seasons – Joshua Nesbitt and Tevin Washington) Lee came in as a hyped commodity and, in spurts as Washington’s backup last year, showed off a better arm than either Nesbitt or Washington had, play-making speed on run plays and the indefinable “it” quality that all great quarterbacks have. Most memorably, he led drives that scored 55 of Tech’s point in a 68-50 win over North Carolina, the highest-scoring ACC game in history. Washington proved to be a quarterback capable of managing the Tech offense, but was not the type who could carry or will a team. Lee seems to have that potential in him. That said, he’ll start camp as the No. 1 and expected starter (Justin Thomas will push him, and probably see some amount of time), but he won’t have nearly the experience that Washington had accumulated by the end of his career.
However, as far as the passing game goes, the Yellow Jackets are in a bit of a hole in the pass-catching department. Jeff Greene, the leading receiver last season, was removed from the team. Another receiver decided not to return for his senior year. As a result, only one receiver who had significant experience last season, Darren Waller, will be back. The other contenders are redshirt freshmen, incoming freshmen and two rising juniors, one with no career catches and another who was a highly recruited athlete out of high school but decided to play baseball and is now going to try football.
AB: Is it a bigger deal that the Yellow Jackets return five offensive linemen who have started before or that the running backs lost their biggest threat in Orwin Smith? Does GT just have a stable of backs ready to fill in?
KS: Tough question. I guess to try to answer it, you can ask, What would Georgia Tech rather have, all five linemen back and no Smith, or two or three linemen back and have Smith. Re-phrasing it, it’s still a tough call, but my guess would be having five starting linemen back is pretty significant, particularly because it’s a pretty decent group. It gets lost because of their record last season (7-7), but the offense wasn’t bad – No. 2 in scoring offense in the ACC and No. 4 in total offense in league games. Shaq Mason might have been better last season than All-ACC guard Omoregie Uzzi, Jay Finch is an athletic center, Morgan Bailey and Ray Beno are effective at tackle and Will Jackson has been a starter (mostly at guard) since he was a freshman. They should take another step forward.
Smith was a terrific A-back, the Jackets’ biggest play-making threat last season and as much of a go-to player as there was on the offense. That said, because of the nature of the position, it was still difficult to get him the ball a lot – in eight league games last year, he had 61 carries (though he averaged a stunning 9.2 yards a pop). Plus, as noted, there are a handful of candidates who should be able to share the load. A player who flashed in spring was Dennis Andrews, a rising redshirt freshman who showed the ability to break tackles and make trouble after the catch. Robbie Godhigh, a returning starter, is a devastating cut blocker and an underrated ball-carrier.
AB: Ted Roof is back at his alma mater as the Jackets’ defensive coordinator. Among the changes is a shift from Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme to a 4-3, but what else is going to be different about this year’s defense under new leadership?
KS: I imagine this typically is said when a new defensive coordinator comes in, but Roof stressed effort and tackling (and pursuit angles) in his first spring back at his alma mater. Tackling, in particular, was a weak spot in Groh’s 2 ½ years as Georgia Tech coordinator. Johnson has said more than once he wants a system that is easy to teach and lets players get out and play, and it would appear Roof’s scheme is more in line with that framework that Groh’s was. Johnson had no problems necessarily with Groh’s scheme, but the results weren’t showing up on the field because players were so overloaded mentally, resulting in them being out of place or unsure of their responsibilities.
After Groh’s firing after six games, the Georgia Tech defense didn’t turn around completely, but played markedly better in the last half with a simplified scheme and a 4-3 look. There’s some talent on that side of the ball, starting with rush end Jeremiah Attaochu (who had previously played outside linebacker). Cornerback Jemea Thomas is another. First impressions indicate that Roof will be better able to unlock that ability..
AB: Of the three position groups on defense, the secondary probably had the most issues last year. Can the Jackets have a good year without a leap in performance from this unit?
KS: Probably not. A primary directive has been to limit big plays and, often, big plays happen due to lapses in the secondary. The unit had high expectations last season and underperformed. Injuries and bad tackling were big parts of the problem. So was weak pass rush. It’s not a bad group. Thomas is one of the best players in the ACC that few know about. Cornerback Louis Young has NFL potential, but was simply off his game last season. Isaiah Johnson improved over the course of last season in his second season starting at safety, but he’ll be coming back from a knee injury suffered in bowl practice. The other safety spot is kind of iffy. Fred Holton has missed the past two seasons with season-ending injuries. Chris Milton, a top special-teams performer, could end up starting there, but hasn’t had much defensive playing time.
AB: Many forget that Georgia Tech represented the depleted Coastal Division in the ACC title game last year after winning four of six down the stretch. With a Paul Johnson option offense that’s always tough to prepare for, a new outlook on defense and 16 starters returning, how do you think this team fits in the Coastal picture this season?
KS: I think, like always, they’ve got a shot. I suppose every team can play the “If only” game, but it bears mention that Georgia Tech lost in overtime both to Virginia Tech and Miami, both in games in which they held the lead in the final minute of regulation, so it’s not like they couldn’t have won it outright last year with a couple more defensive stops.That said, the Yellow Jackets have lost three in a row to the Hokies and four in a row to the Hurricanes. While the losses to Virginia Tech have typically been competitive, they’ll need to find a way to beat both to presumably have a chance.
It doesn’t help Georgia Tech’s chances that it will play division rivals Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami in consecutive weeks early in the season. The Tar Heels will be coming off a bye (though that didn’t help them last year when they had the same advantage) and the Tech-Tech matchup will be on five days’ rest for both teams. The Jackets will have to slug pretty hard for four consecutive weeks to have a chance, and they’ll have to do it while a new defense and a new quarterback are settling in.
I wouldn’t call them favorites, but it won’t surprise me if they play for the ACC title again.