ATLANTA — Always looking forward, Paul Johnson already has placed this latest season in his personal rearview mirror.
While 2009 was filled with plenty of joyous moments around Georgia Tech, the head coach has decided to leave them in the past, embracing instead the more painful memories of the past several months and finding ways to fix those problems.
“There’s a lot of things we can get better at,” Johnson said.
Speaking just eight days after his team’s 24-14 Orange Bowl loss to Iowa, the two-time ACC coach of the year offered his final thoughts Wednesday on his most recent season.
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In a candid half-hour news conference, Johnson calmly addressed some of the issues he believed may have helped prevent the Yellow Jackets from capping the year they way they had hoped. He also provided a glimpse into his own designs for their immediate future.
“You just build on what you’ve done,” he said.
At first glance, building upon the accomplishments of this past year could be considered a tall challenge.
More than a week removed from an 11-3 finish, an Orange Bowl berth and an ACC championship, the Yellow Jackets just fired their defensive coordinator and said goodbye to four of their best players.
Along with the departure of assistant Dave Wommack on Friday, All-ACC juniors Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer, Morgan Burnett and Derrick Morgan announced they were leaving the school early to go to the NFL.
“It didn’t matter what I thought (about them staying or going), it’s what they thought,” Johnson said of the juniors. “Every individual is different, and for whatever reason, this was a little bit of a perfect storm. I could make a case for most of them to go, and I could make a case for most of them stay. Ultimately, them and their families had to decide. It’s a lot of money involved, and sometimes, you want it right now.”
A former conference player of the year, Dwyer rushed for exactly 1,395 yards in each of the past two seasons. He also had 14 rushing touchdowns this season.
Finding his replacement will be one of the Yellow Jackets’ top priorities as they begin spring practice in late March.
Johnson on Wednesday morning confirmed that A-back Anthony Allen will move from his current position as one of the team’s slot backs into Dwyer’s old spot behind quarterback Josh Nesbitt. Although it is not set in stone that Allen will start next season at B-back, the junior’s size and speed seem to make him a suitable candidate for the position.
“You put somebody else in those positions and see if they won’t be good offensive players,” Johnson said. “I would be really, really stunned if our B-back doesn’t gain more than 1,000 yards. They have every year I’ve been coaching pretty much, and there’s been a lot of different guys to play that position throughout the years.
“I take nothing away from Jon. He’s a great player, and we’re going to miss him, but it’ll be somebody else’s opportunity to step in there.”
The same, Johnson said, goes for Thomas’ replacement at receiver — likely true freshman Stephen Hill — and the potential linemen who must fill the void left by the ACC’s leading sack artist, Morgan.
With Fitzgerald native Jemea Thomas emerging as a key young contributor at safety, as well as the return of veteran Cooper Taylor to the position, Johnson said he is not concerned about depth in his secondary.
Of the things that have caught his attention, however, are some significant developments on both sides of the ball that he believes can be fixed.
“We’ve got to be more efficient on offense passing the ball — consistency in that area,” Johnson said.
He added that in the spring and fall, he hopes to see better performances from his offensive linemen. The group “made progress from year one to year two, but we’ve got to continue to make progress there,” he said. On defense, the Yellow Jackets must tighten up their tackling and third-down defense, he said.
“We gave up enough big plays to last a decade,” Johnson said. “So we’ve got to get away from that.”
While Johnson hates singling out players for good or bad things they do, he made a point to say that he was impressed with the season Nesbitt and true freshmen Julian Burnett had.
Julian Burnett, a Westside product, had 41 tackles in 13 games.
Nesbitt became the first player in school history to run and throw for 1,000 yards in a season. He also joined Dwyer to form Georgia Tech’s only tandem to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
“I don’t know that I was surprised, I thought (Nesbitt) would play better,” Johnson said. “If he can make as much improvement from this year to next year as he did from last year to this, he could really be special.”
As Johnson prepares to finalize the Yellow Jackets’ recruiting efforts and search for answers to the team’s question marks, the players themselves are already making big plans for this time next year.
“We’re going to lead this team to do great things. It’s not over. There’s no way it’s over,” offensive tackle Nick Claytor said. “We want another ACC championship, but it’s time to get a bowl win and a BCS bowl win. It doesn’t stop here.”