ATLANTA -- One of the arrows has been removed from the quiver of Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson.
At the annual ACC Football Kickoff this summer, the Yellow Jackets were picked to win the Coastal Division. Ahead of Virginia Tech. Ahead of Duke. Ahead of Miami. Ahead of everyone.
There goes the “no one respects us” arrow.
“There’s a lot of teams that are competitive (in the Coastal Division),” Johnson said. “For once, I hope they got it right. They haven’t got it right too many times. This time I hope they picked it right.”
But there are many good reasons why Georgia Tech is the overwhelming pick to win its division. There are 16 returning starters -- six on offense, eight on defense and both specialists. Johnson has 48 returning lettermen.
The Yellow Jackets enter the season ranked No. 17 in the coaches poll, the first time they’ve been in the preseason poll since 2010.
“I think you’ve got to play the games on the field,” Johnson said. “We’ve been in the ACC championship game three of the seven years we’ve been there. That’s certainly our goal and what we’re shooting for again this year.”
The source for much of the excitement stems from the presence of junior quarterback Justin Thomas, who last year proved to be the ideal player to run Johnson’s spread option attack. Thomas ran for 1,086 yards, threw for 1,719 yards and accounted for 26 touchdowns, with a 153.9 pass efficiency rating.
With Thomas at the controls, the Yellow Jackets led the nation in rushing and set an ACC record, averaging 342.1 yards per game.
“Justin is a tremendous athlete,” Johnson said. “We’re very fortunate to have him as part of our program. I think he’d be a really good quarterback in any system, but his skillset really fits what we like to do.”
But Thomas will be without most of his supporting cast in the backfield, including top B-backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey, as well as his two best receivers, former Tattnall Square standout DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller. All four signed NFL contracts this spring, with Smelter being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers.
The Yellow Jackets are banking on the return of A-back Broderick Snoddy, who ran for 283 yards and three touchdowns before suffering a broken leg against Clemson. Returning at the B-back slot is Marcus Allen, who seized the job late in the spring when he had a strong spring game, but Stanford transfer Patrick Skov is expected to compete for playing time.
The receiver spots are equally wide open, although Micheal Summers and Ricky Jeune lead the returning players.
The offensive line has four starters back -- tackles Trey Braun and Bryan Chamberlain, guard Errin Joe and center Freddie Burden.
The defense, now in its third season under coordinator Ted Roof, might be in the best place it has been since Johnson arrived. Eight starters return from a group that seemed to bend but resisted the urge to break. Other than a meltdown at North Carolina the defense was effective.
“Statistically, we weren’t very good defensively if you look at yards per play, total yardage, whatever,” Johnson said. “But I think Ted and the defensive staff did a nice job. We became very opportunistic. We were pretty good with takeaways.”
The defense became more aggressive after allowing 56 points to North Carolina. It decided to apply more pressure, which meant it was able to get off the field one way or another.
“Our guys kind of took to that, and we played better on defense down the stretch,” Johnson said. “We’re anxiously optimistic that we’re going to be much better defensively.”
Returning starters are led by nose tackle Adam Gotsis, a 6-foot-5, 282-pound senior who could play at the next level. Other returners on the defense are end KeShun Freeman, a freshman All-American last year, linebackers P.J. Davis and Tyler Marcordes, cornerbacks D.J. White and Demond Smith and safeties Jamal Golden and Chris Milton.
The season begins with a rare Thursday night game Sept. 3 against Alcorn State, but that’s one of the few breathers on the schedule. The Yellow Jackets also play No. 10 Florida State, No. 12 Clemson, No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 9 Georgia. Virginia Tech also received votes in the preseason Associated Press poll.
That means there will be few instances when Georgia Tech can afford to take a week off and expect to win on ability alone.
“I think the biggest thing is just understanding that when you play top teams, like a Florida State, they’re not going to make the simple mistakes,” White said. “They’re not going to beat themselves, so you can’t beat yourself in order to give yourself a good chance. You really have to be on top of your game and be mentally focused every game. Any one slip-up can mean the difference in the outcome.”
ABOUT THE GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
Head coach: Paul Johnson (165-74 in 18 seasons overall; 58-35 in seven seasons at Georgia Tech).
2014 record: 11-3, 6-2 ACC.
Returning offensive starters: Justin Thomas (Jr., QB); Micheal Summers (Soph., WR); Trey Braun (Jr., T), Bryan Chamberlain (Jr., T); Errin Joe (Sr., G); Freddie Burden (Jr., C).
Returning defensive starters: KeShun Freeman (Soph., DE); Adam Gotsis (Sr., NT); P.J. Davis (Jr., LB); Tyler Marcordes (Sr., LB); D.J. White (Sr., CB); Demond Smith (Sr., CB); Jamal Golden (Sr., S); Chris Milton (Sr., S).
Three keys to success: 1. The staff must identify the backs who can contribute, especially at the crucial B-back spot.
2. Thomas must stay healthy. If he does go down, the offense goes down with him.
3. The defense needs to continue to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and continue to force turnovers.
Sept. 3 Alcorn State
Sept. 12 Tulane
Sept. 19 at Notre Dame
Sept. 26 at Duke
Oct. 3 North Carolina
Oct. 10 at Clemson
Oct. 17 Pittsburgh
Oct. 24 Florida State
Oct. 31 at Virginia
Nov. 12 Virginia Tech
Nov. 21 at Miami
Nov. 28 Georgia