Early Look at the 2009 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

by - Senior Writer -

Last week, we started taking a look at ACC football teams, and how the spring practices and games went, along with a small preview of the upcoming campaign. We started with Boston College (I was just going to go in alphabetic order), but a few readers liked and suggested the idea of going in order of where they appear on Clemson’s schedule.

So, we are going to take a step back (so we can get in order), and take a look at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets , under first-year head coach Paul Johnson and his option attack, finished with a 9-4 overall record, and they went 5-3 in the ACC and tied for first place in the Coastal Division with Virginia Tech. An early-season, 20-17 loss to Virginia Tech kept them from playing for the ACC Championship. The Jackets finished the year ranked 22nd in both national polls (AP, USA Today) and earned a berth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, their 12th consecutive bowl game. However, the Jackets were trounced 38-3 by LSU in that game.

Johnson was named ACC Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year by CBS Sports.com.

WHO IS GONE - Not a lot. The jackets lose only six starters, but three of those six started on the defensive line (DE Michael Johnson, DT Darryl Richard and DT Vance Walker) and counted 87 starts among them. Also missing from the defensive side of the ball are LB Tony Clark and CB Jahi Word-Daniels. Clark did not start but played significant defensive snaps. The offense loses just two starters, but they are OT Andrew Gardner (first-team All-ACC selection last season) and OT David Brown.

WHO IS RETURNING - The offense returns nine starters, including QB Josh Nesbitt , who rushed for 693 yards and threw for 808 yards in Johnson’s ground attack. Running back Jonathan Dwyer was named the ACC Player of the Year last season after rushing for 1,395 yards (7.0 yards per carry). Fellow running back Roddy Jones ran for 690 yards (8.5 per carry), and he will be joined by Lucas Cox (who started 13 games last season). Joining this talented backfield trio is Anthony Allen, a transfer from Louisville who redshirted last season. Demaryius Thomas returns at WR (39 catches last season), along with WR Tyler Melton. On the offensive line, G Cord Howard, G Joseph Gilbert and C Dan Voss are back, as is T Nick Clayton, who started the final five games last season. On defense, the Jackets will look to DE Derrick Morgan (7 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss) to anchor the depleted defensive line. All three starting LBs (Kyle Jackson, Sedric Griffin and Anthony Barnes) return, as do four players in the secondary, led by S Morgan Burnett, the All-American candidate who had seven interceptions a year ago. Scott Blair will once again reprise his role as both placekicker and punter.

BIG SPRING QUESTIONS - The big spring question in most people’s minds is whether or not the offense will continue to improve or will the big boys, as time goes by, get better at stopping it. There are differing opinions on whether an option offense can work in the FBS in this day and age, with some even going as far as calling it a “gimmick” offense. Others look at Johnson’s past record and feel that the running game, now that he has had two springs to implement the full arsenal (Johnson has admitted they ran only a small portion of the full offense last season), could be even better. The key might be Nesbitt , who had problems with turnovers and decision making at times last season. However, one other big spring question is the rebuilding of the defensive line. Will they be good enough? The defense did, after all, give up over 80 points in their final two games last season.

SPRING PRACTICE AND GAME - The Jackets went into the spring needing to see improvement in the passing game and on the defensive line. DE Robert Hall impressed the coaches with his improvement, but the coaches still want to see more out tackles Jason Peters, Ben Anderson and T.J. Barnes. In the passing, game, the Jackets struggled in all phases. The game plan for opponents will be to get ahead of the Jackets early and force them to the air. Johnson also looked to improve the Jackets’ ineffective return teams. Johnson said that starters will make up the bulk of the return teams in 2009, but they were in 2008 as well and it didn’t make much difference. In the spring game, Nesbitt was sidelined with a minor wrist injury, but redshirt freshman quarterback Tevin Washington ran for two touchdowns and threw for another score as the Gold beat the White 31-28. Sophomore quarterback Jaybo Shaw also had a good game, scoring three touchdowns and accounting for 263 yards of total offense. Both teams combined for over 400 yards of total offense, but also combined for eight fumbles. The Gold Team was made up of Morgan and the first-string defense, while the White had Dwyer and first-string offense except for Nesbitt. The kicking game was another lowlight for the Jackets, as Blair (0-3) and Chris Tanner (1-2) were just 1-for-5 on field goals.

2009 SEASON AND SCHEDULE - The Yellow Jackets, like many other FBS schools, have had their share of cupcakes on the schedule (including Gardner-Webb last year), but this season looks a little different. The Jackets start with a decent FCS team in Jacksonville State, and then host the Tigers in a huge Thursday night game in Atlanta at Bobby Stadium just five days later. They follow that with another Thursday night game a week later with a trip to Miami. Another ACC home date follows that with a game against North Carolina, and then they take to the road for two weeks as they play Miss. St. and Florida St. Virginia Tech comes into Atlanta on Oct. 17 for another huge home date, and their final two out of conference dates are with Vanderbilt and Georgia. With the exception of Duke and possibly Miss. St., the Jackets will run into quality competition every week, and their only real open date (except for the nine days following the Miami contest), is after week 11 (between Duke and Georgia).

CLEMSON AND GEORGIA TECH IN 2008 - The Tigers and Jackets met in Death Valley last season in Dabo Swinney’s first game as Clemson’s head coach. Former head coach Tommy Bowden had stepped down on Monday of that week, just days after promoting freshman quarterback Willy Korn into the starting role. The Jackets came away with a 21-17 win after Nesbitt hit Thomas on a 24-yard touchdown with 5:22 remaining in the game. The Jackets returned an interception 34 yards for the first touchdown of the game, and led 14-3 at the half after Nesbitt scored from five yards out with 30 seconds left in the half. The Tigers bounced back behind quarterback Cullen Harper (Korn left with an early shoulder injury) and receiver Aaron Kelly, however, with the two seniors hooking up on scoring plays of 32 and 31 yards for a 17-14 lead that stood until the Nesbitt pass. The Tigers drove to midfield on their final possession, but a hook-and-ladder play on fourth down was well short.

WAY TOO EARLY PREVIEW OF CLEMSON AND GEORGIA TECH IN 2009 - The Tigers and Jackets always play great contests, and with a few exceptions, the games are always close. This year should not be any different. Both teams have opening games that should see them both at 1-0 (Clemson versus Middle Tennessee, the Jackets against Jacksonville St.). What makes this one even more special is that it will be on the nationally-televised Thursday Night game on ESPN, and you can bet that the majority of the country will be looking in to see Dwyer and Spiller in a contest that will feature two of the nation’s best running backs. It will also be the first true test of Clemson’s new quarterback (Parker or Korn or even Wade), and there will be no shortage of story lines during the week. It will be interesting to see how much time the Tigers spend on the option attack during their fall camp. Will they only work on it a few days in advance of the short week, or will they be gearing up for Tech starting in early August? With the game being a night game, on ESPN, and with perhaps an early rise or hit in the polls riding on the outcome, the Tiger defense will need to force a few turnovers early, get ahead, and force the Jackets out of their comfort zone. Clemson fans would love to see Sapp and Bowers running free after Nesbitt if he has to pass a lot. Clemson’s defense has the speed to keep the Tigers close as long as they play assignment football. However, with Tech’s experience in their back seven on defense, it will be imperative that the Tigers not fall behind early themselves and have to abandon Spiller and trust a new quarterback to win it for them through the air. In all, this one should be a barn-burner in typical Clemson-Tech tradition, and it would be great to have another Woody Dantzler-type moment in that stadium.

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