In Macon, the cherry blossoms are blooming and the temperature is on the rise. In Atlanta, yellow pollen powder is beginning to dust cars, sidewalks and anything else that stands in its way.
It all means one thing: Spring is in the air. But with the arrival of the new season also comes the sound of blaring horns, shouting coaches and the crunching smacks of football helmets. Yes, spring has come to Georgia, but so too has the first glimpse of football season. As Georgia Tech kicks off its first of 14 spring practices Monday and counts down to its April 18 T-Day spring game, Telegraph sports writer Coley Harvey walks you through the top 5 things to expect from the spring session:
1. Defensive Line: Can Tech replace 3 All-ACC stars?
They were the most veteran components to last season’s team. They were big, physical and dominating on their side of the ball. They were the members of Georgia Tech’s defensive line. This coming fall, the Yellow Jackets’ front four take on a new look as the group lost three of its biggest stars from the 2008 season in defensive tackles Darryl Richard and Vance Walker and defensive end Michael Johnson. The trio — each now hoping to be drafted in the NFL draft next month — helped the Yellow Jackets hold opposing offenses to an average of 120.3 rushing yards per game last year.
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With those losses, Georgia Tech is forced to look toward the future with hopes of discovering similar past success in the coming season. Anchoring those hopes will be the emergence of junior defensive end Derrick Morgan, whom head coach Paul Johnson said at times last season was the best player on the entire front line. In addition to Morgan, who had seven sacks and recovered a team-high four fumbles, watch for juniors Robert Hall and Anthony Egbuniwe to step up this spring and try to make names for themselves also. Both will compete for the other defensive end spot. Last season, Hawkinsville native Hall had 13 tackles in 13 games.
2. Offense: Is there another new offensive package in the works?
Some have called him the brightest mind in college football. Others have even dubbed him one of the most brilliant innovators in the sport, for his knack of bringing an unfamiliar offense to a new team and seeing immediate success with it. With the Yellow Jackets running the triple option offensive under Johnson for the first time on The Flats, fans saw all kinds of trick plays, reverses, pitches and passes that their heads were likely spinning out of control. But if they thought that was all the sneaky coach had in his arsenal, they are greatly mistaken.
At the end of last season, Johnson said he wasn’t done adding components to his unique offense. In addition to a prolific ground game — Georgia Tech was among the nation’s leaders with 273.2 rushing yards per game — he contends that the air attack with come to Bobby Dodd Stadium this fall. Telling reporters in December that he hoped to implement a version of the run-n-shoot passing offense to his run-based option system, Johnson is hoping to give opponents an even harder time trying to game plan against his team. With Laurens County native Demaryius Thomas anchoring a strong receiving corps, the Yellow Jackets are bound to catch teams by surprise with the passing schemes they will draw up this year. Fans should be on the lookout this spring to see just what packages Johnson has begun to put in place.
3. Secondary: An old face in a new place?
For the first time in his career, Macon native Correy Earls won’t be the only Bibb County resident on Georgia Tech’s roster. Joining him in the fall will be acclaimed Westside linebacker Julian Burnett. But even a bit of familiarity landing with Earls in Midtown Atlanta this season, the former Central standout is being forced to make a career change.
This spring, Yellow Jackets fans who became accustomed to seeing Earls’ No. 15 jersey line up at receiver opposite Thomas are going to be in for a strange surprise, when they see Earls line up opposite his fellow Middle Georgian in scrimmages. Announced by team officials last week, Earls will be moving to defensive back. It isn’t clear just yet what position he’ll be playing exactly, but the former wideout — who has been heralded as the fastest man in past Georgia Tech camps — will be seeing a different look this fall. Last season, following a conversation with Central head coach Anthony Hines, The Telegraph learned that there were whispers from Georgia Tech coaches that they were considering the move to increase Earls’ draft stock following his senior season. At the time, no one on Georgia Tech’s staff would confirm the rumors.
Last season, Earls, who missed much of the start of the season with a hamstring injury, caught just four passes for 41 yards.
4. Linebacker: Will depth, experience pay off?
While the Yellow Jackets lose a lot of experience off their defensive line, they gain it in their linebacking corps. Due to injuries and a young, depleted roster, several sophomores and redshirt freshmen were thrust into Georgia Tech’s starting lineup at the position last season and gained valuable playing time. Among the young Yellow Jackets returning to fill their needs at linebacker will be juniors Anthony Barnes and Brad Jefferson and sophomore Kyle Jackson. Another Middle Georgian, Jefferson starred at Johnson County in high school.
Of the three, Barnes and Jackson saw the most playing time last season, with Jackson ranking third in team tackling. He recorded 61 stops last year.
In addition to the young Yellow Jackets, the linebacker group will be anchored by vocal and emotional leader Sedric Griffin. Always seeming to be around the football, Griffin recorded several game- and momentum-saving tackles throughout the course of the 2008 season. Coming away with 53 tackles, Griffin is the workhorse the team will look to on third downs. This spring, expect him to emerge as the leader at inside linebacker, but look for Jackson, Barnes and Jefferson to command for a tight second spot.
5. Team: Reverse raggedness to be seen?
Following Johnson’s first spring practice last season, the head coach could only pause, look around and tell reporters the one thing on his mind. According to him, just one word could sum up the entire afternoon’s workout: ragged. This year, with his offense finally in place, and his players used to his conditioning system, he hopes ragged will be replaced with a much cleaner, happier word.
His insistence on the rough nature of his team’s play throughout the 2008 spring campaign was the by-product of dropped passes, fumbled snaps, misplaced pitches and misguided blocks. In the T-Day Game last April, the Yellow Jackets’ offense could barely muster up yardage and was being outplayed by a bigger, stronger offense. But in a few short months, they offense would find its bearing, as it helped lead Georgia Tech to an unexpected 9-4 finish and a Chick-fil-A Bowl berth.
One of the things the players attributed to the fact that the fall season played out differently from the spring is the fact that the Yellow Jackets had finally understood Johnson’s conditioning system. A brutal, hard, demanding training regimen, they found themselves unprepared last spring. This year, however, after already having an idea of what to expect, they’ve found ways to increase their conditioning and ensure this spring won’t be quite so ragged.