2014 CFN Preview: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech S Isaiah Johnson
Georgia Tech S Isaiah Johnson
Posted Aug 1, 2014

Preview 2014 - Did Georgia Tech peak in 2009? Can the magic come back? (Getty Images)

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Preview 2014

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- 2014 Georgia Tech Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players  

By Rich Cirminiello

Head coach: Paul Johnson
Sixth year: 47-32
Returning Lettermen
Off. 19, Def. 22, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 20
Ten Best GT Players
1. OG Shaquille Mason, Sr.
2. NT Adam Gotsis, Jr.
3. S Isaiah Johnson, Sr.
4. LB Quayshawn Nealy, Sr.
5. CB Jamal Golden, Sr.
6. RB Zach Laskey, Sr.
7. WR DeAndre Smelter, Sr.
8. QB Justin Thomas, Soph.
9. CB D.J. White, Jr.
10. PK Harrison Butker, Soph.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Wofford
Sep. 6 at Tulane
Sep. 13 Georgia Southern
Sep. 20 at Virginia Tech
Oct. 4 Miami
Oct. 11 Duke
Oct. 18 at North Carolina
Oct. 25 at Pitt
Nov. 1 Virginia
Nov. 8 at NC State
Nov. 15 Clemson
Nov. 29 at Georgia

It’s becoming increasingly evident that the Yellow Jackets just might have peaked after all in 2009.

Georgia Tech won 11 games and the Atlantic Coast Conference five years ago, helping make head coach Paul Johnson the toast of Atlanta for a brief time. Since then, the school has gone 23-25 versus FBS opponents, making Johnson’s seat, well, toasty. The Jackets are clearly stuck in neutral, with no end to the mediocrity in plain sight. In a decision that was both symbolic and immediately impactful to the current squad, starting QB Vad Lee voluntarily decided in January that his career would benefit from a transfer to FCS James Madison.

The buzz has naturally died down at Georgia Tech. And the losing streak to rival Georgia has reached five games. Maybe seven-win seasons that end at a second-rate bowl game is as good as it gets on the Flats. Hey, the Yellow Jackets have won 10 games just three times over the last half-century, so it’s not as if this is a perennial powerhouse that demands national respect and notoriety.

If Tech is going is going to flip its usual script, it doesn’t appear likely to happen this season. Lee’s successor at quarterback, Justin Thomas, has upside potential, yet he’s also young and green. Last season’s top two rushers were seniors, and both lines are being forced to replace three starters from a year ago. Undisputed stars, the kinds who can take over games, are scarce. In fact, an argument can be made that the program’s top performers are interior linemen, OG Shaquille Mason and NT Adam Gotsis.

Yellow Jacket fans have a nasty case of mediocrity fatigue, with Johnson and his 20th century offense falling squarely in their crosshairs. The coach, who’s signed through the 2016 season, is none too pleased either. He has a relatively new boss, second-year AD Mike Bobinski, and a personal quest to ratchet up the sense of urgency within the program.

Georgia Tech has been to 17 consecutive bowl games. One of them, the 2010 Orange Bowl, was a marquee postseason event. That’s the Yellow Jackets in a nutshell, consistent almost to a fault. They’re pining to break through by nabbing a wide-open Coastal Division that’s available for any school that gets hot in October and November. The program—and its leader—need to buck the odds for the first time in five years.

What to look for on offense: QB insurance. Just because Justin Thomas is firmly entrenched as the starter behind center doesn’t mean Tim Byerly has put up the white flag. In fact, the Middle Tennessee transfer has narrowed the divide with his play in the offseason. Byerly, who head coach Paul Johnson admits should have been recruited by the Yellow Jackets three years ago, will earn a scholarship at Tech this summer. He capped a strong spring effort by displaying his toughness as a runner, along with his retention of the coach’s offense. At worst, Byerly will keep Thomas honest this summer.

What to look for on defense: A greater reliance on nickel packages. After using the nickel as a sub package in 2013, coordinator Ted Roof is contemplating making it his base defense. Translated? The Yellow Jacket would add an additional defensive back at the expense of a linebacker to combat offenses that go three-wide. No one would have been impacted by the shift more than LB Jabari Hunt-Days. He was pulled in 2013 when Tech employed the nickel, so the staff auditioned him at rush end in the spring. But Hunt-Days has been lost for the year to academics, potentially opening the door for early-enrollee KeShun Freeman.

The team will be much better if … it closes some of the holes in pass defense. The Yellow Jackets finished 12th in ACC pass defense a year ago, which must be rectified. If Tech is going to improve on last year’s porous results against the pass, it’ll have to do so without the services of starting cornerbacks Jemea Thomas and Louis Young. The safeties will be bolstered by the healthy return of Isaiah Johnson, while rising CB D.J. White played plenty in 2013. Still, depth needs to be built, and everyone has to do a better job of sealing off throwing lanes.

The Schedule: The schedule is perfect to gear it all up. The Yellow Jackets get three tune-ups, including a fun all-ground game battle against Georgia Southern, before kicking off the ACC schedule at Virginia Tech. There's no Florida State to face from the Atlantic, but Clemson is on the slate - at least that's at home. Considering Miami and Duke are at home, two of the toughest games are in Atlanta. There's a rough stretch of three road games in four weeks, starting out at North Carolina and with trips to Pitt and NC State to deal with. If the non-conference slate against Wofford, Tulane and Georgia Southern seems easy, the payoff comes at the end at Georgia - and that comes after dealing with Clemson.

Best Offensive Player: Senior OG Shaquille Mason. The Yellow Jackets have been home to a First Team All-ACC blocker in each of the last seven years. Mason is the latest honoree, picking up the nod following a breakout 2013 season. He’s a vital—and often overlooked—cog in Paul Johnson’s ground game, especially in a year when three starting offensive linemen must be replaced. Mason believes his best at Tech has yet to come after he played much of his junior season at less than full strength.

Best Defensive Player: Junior NT Adam Gotsis. Georgia Tech rose to No. 2 in ACC run defense last year, while yielding just 3.6 yards per carry. The presence of Gotsis in the middle of the line had a lot to do with the improvement. He’s a hard-working, agile interior lineman, with the quickness to blow up plays in the opposing backfield. And he’s a long way from reaching his ceiling. Gotsis is a native of Melbourne, Australia, who spent much of his youth playing sports other than American football.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Justin Thomas. Whether it’s called the triple-option or the flexbone, the offense’s success will be dictated by the play of the quarterback. In this case, Thomas, an electrifying athlete, with minimal experience to call upon. Paul Johnson’s system heaps considerable responsibility on the quarterback to dish and distribute like a point guard at McCamish Pavilion. When the passer isn’t making sound decisions, offensive success is next to impossible to achieve. Thomas has potential. Tech is hoping to witness it this fall.

The season will be a success if ... the Yellow Jackets win eight games for the first time since 2011. The best way for Georgia Tech to fight through the malaise is to get beyond the back-to-back seven-win seasons that have plagued the program of late. Florida State isn’t on the schedule, but Clemson is, and there are no free rides in the Coastal Division. At least the Jackets open with Wofford, Tulane and Georgia Southern, which should provide for a fast 3-0 start to 2014.

Key game: Nov. 29 at Georgia. You want to help your job security, Coach Johnson? Beat Georgia for the first time since 2008. Better yet, do it Between the Hedges. The Yellow Jackets need a reason to feel pride within the state borders. Winning this year’s edition of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate would be a decidedly important step in the right direction. Some pre-postseason momentum would do a heap of good for everyone on the Flats.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Rushing yards per game: Georgia Tech 299.3 – Opponents 115.8
- Yards per catch: Georgia Tech 18.4 – Opponents 11.9
- Red-zone touchdown%: Georgia Tech 82% - Opponents 62%

- 2014 Georgia Tech Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players