After a long offseason following Georgia Tech’s most successful season in at least a decade and a half, expectations are high for the 2015 iteration to match or exceed the bar set by last season.
There are many questions that need answers in a hurry, as the Jackets third game will be a matchup with 11th ranked Notre Dame in South Bend on September 9. After that is a run of games at Duke and at home against UNC, against which both teams Tech were defeated last season. Following that is a dangerous Pitt team sandwiched by an away date at #12 Clemson and home against #10 FSU.
The coaching staff and players will need to have their ducks in a row by mid-September as there will be no bye until November. The upcoming game against Alcorn State should be a glorified scrimmage against an outmatched opponent to give the fans an idea of the player rotation for the upcoming season.
1. Who the heck plays A-back this season?
Paul Johnson likes to go up to six players deep on Saturdays in his A-back core. Last year we saw Tony Zenon, Deon Hill, B.J. Bostic, Charles Perkins, Dennis Andrews and Broderick Snoddy. The first five will not return for the 2015 season and the sixth broke his leg late in 2014. Still, reports are that Snoddy has a lot of confidence in his ability to play at his pre-injury level.
However, beyond Snoddy will be a group of untested players. Only Isiah Willis, the former walk-on junior, has gotten touches as A-back before. Qua Searcy is a guy I previewed in the positional series with a lot of speed and pass catching ability but has only had one redshirt year to learn to carry the ball and block at his new position.
Two other guys to watch at the position will be Clinton Lynch and TaQuon Marshall. Both are in their freshman year, the former as a redshirt, and Lynch, like Searcy, is a converted wide out. Marshall was the one listed on the two-deep, however, and his experience as an all-purpose back in high school makes for an easier transition.
The biggest thing to monitor is ball protection, something Paul Johnson stresses as paramount. If any players puts the ball on the ground, it will immediately jeopardize their playing time going forward. As long as Lynch and Marshall hold onto the ball and the guys in front of them are blocking, I have no worries about the new guys to use their athleticism to pick up chunks of yards on the ground.
2. Who the heck plays wide receiver this season?
The most senior and experienced member of the unit, Michael Summers, has been sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Right now on the depth chart passed out ahead of the game, Summers isn’t even listed on the two-deep. The starting combo, Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart, has zero catches in college football combined. Add in the two backups and the total rises to an astounding one catch.
To back up a bit, the lack of catching experience is not a huge worry. The first three responsibilities for a wide receiver in this scheme is block, block some more, and block again. The touches will be few and far between, although this game will be the best chances for testing the back of the Alcorn State defense. Whichever players are most physical and securely block their cornerback assignments best will see the field the most this season, so look for which wideouts best fight to the whistle on Thursday. Any big plays down the field are just icing on the cake.
3. What will this newer swarming defense look like?
With eight returning starters, not to mention Jabari Hunt-Days who started the last time he played in 2013, the Tech defense will look to improve on a disappointing performance last season. Georgia Tech was just 79th in the FBS in total defense, giving up 411.3 yards per game. The defense was able to finish a more respectable 52nd in points conceded per game (25.7) by being +11 in turnover margin last season, 14th best in the FBS.
This season, the team will try to limit points without relying on forcing turnovers. Ted Roof, defensive coordinator, has working on implementing a more aggressive style of defense and more exotic play calling. The team has played faster and looser in camp and worked on flying to the ball more. Reading between the lines, this may mean more blitzing from the front seven, relying on the senior defensive backs to win their one-on-one matchups without help underneath.
It starts with getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, especially improving on the mere 20 sacks in 2014. If the Jackets can improve that number, the defense can take a major step forward by forcing more second and third and longs.
4. Will Georgia Tech try passing more?
In just one redshirt sophomore season, Justin Thomas has shown he has a lot to offer with his arm. His 1719 passing yards were the most by a quarterback in the Paul Johnson era. Tech has some big targets to look for in Ricky Jeune and Antonio Messick, both listed at 6’3″, and A-back Qua Searcy is a converted wide receiver and speedy figure himself.
Tech will never drop back a ton under Paul Johnson, but they can improve on a 121st finish in passing yards out of 125 FBS teams. A game like this is a perfect platform to experiment with more straight drops, even on early downs. Even the B-backs can get into the action. Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days had 9 catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns combined last season. There should be very little to lose in this game so look for Paul Johnson to open up the offense on Thursday.
5. Can the Jackets put away an inferior opponent early?
Georgia Tech had some unnecessary struggles against their early season out of conference schedule last year. First, against a Wofford squad in the Southern Conference of the FCS, Tech took to a halftime a slim 10-9 lead before edging out the Terriers 38-19 at home. Then, in New Orleans visiting a Conference USA Tulane team that Tech faces at home again this year, the Jackets only had a 3 point halftime lead before shutting out the Green Wave in the second half.
After jumping out to a commanding 35-10 lead against new FBS foe Georgia Southern, the Eagles responded with a 28 run to take the lead before a Jamal Golden forced fumble allowed Thomas to hit Deon Hill for the game winner. I would much rather not suffer through a heart attack this year, so expect Tech to come out crisply and put away Alcorn State early.