Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for the Georgia Tech football team a year ago.
The injuries began early and never really stopped. Experienced players had to be replaced by newcomers — or even true freshmen.
The close games that Georgia Tech won in 2014 went the other way in 2015. Instead of the bounces going for them — other than a miraculous win against Florida State — they went in favor of the opposition.
The result was a 3-9 season. The Yellow Jackets finished in the cellar of the ACC’s Coastal Division, three months after being predicted to win the title.
Paul Johnson suffered only his second losing season as a head coach, the other being a 2-10 campaign in his first season at the Naval Academy, and Georgia Tech’s streak of 18 straight years with a bowl appearance came to a screeching halt.
The main thing Georgia Tech must do is put that season in the past and move on.
“Once it was all over, we all wanted to put it behind us,” defensive tackle Pat Gamble said. “We don’t want to linger on it. Now we’re at a different point in our season and our road. Now we can improve on it.”
With all the injuries suffered a year ago, the Georgia Tech offense is in much better shape. There are nine returning starters on offense and five back on the defensive side. There is more depth, and Johnson has more options when it comes to running his option attack.
“We have a good returning nucleus,” Johnson said. “We lost a lot of players last year due to injury, which forced us to play a lot of freshmen. The good news is those guys are back, and they’ll be sophomores and they have some playing experience.”
Here is a look at each position group:
Quarterback: The offense again revolves around quarterback Justin Thomas, who returns for his third year as the starter. Thomas will need to play more like the 2014 version of himself rather than the 2015 version, when he was beaten up and discouraged by the end of the year.
Thomas, perhaps more than any quarterback that Johnson has coached at Georgia Tech, knows all the intricacies of the offense.
“It’s been second nature for about three years now,” Thomas said. “The more you do it, the easier it gets. The more guys know it around you, it also gets even easier.”
Thomas will be backed up by Matthew Jordan, who played some last year when Thomas was injured, and TaQuon Marshall, who moved back to his natural position from A-back late in the season.
A-back: There is a deep corps of A-backs, starting with big-play Clinton Lynch, who averaged 9.5 yards per carry, and senior Isiah Willis. Qua Searcy, who appeared ready to break into his own before suffering a season-ending injury against Notre Dame, and Lynn Griffin also return.
A wild card is J.J. Green, a junior who transferred from Georgia. He had to sit out last year but should have a grasp of the offense. Also expected to help is the speedy Nate Cottrell, who missed his freshman year with a knee injury.
B-back: The B-back group is in solid shape with the return of leading rusher Marcus Marshall (654 yards).
“Last year, he’s elusive, he can make anybody miss, outrun anybody in the league,” Thomas said. “I think this year he’ll have a lot more experience, when to hit the hole, where to hit the hole. I think he’ll be a lot better.”
Senior Marcus Allen and true freshman Dedrick Mills, who enrolled early and participated in spring drills, also will play.
Receivers: The leaders are Ricky Jeune, who emerged to catch 24 passes — 30 percent of the team’s total — and the sure-handed Brad Stewart, who started as a true freshman. Antonio Messick has experience there, too.
There are plenty of redshirt freshmen (Christian Philpott, Harland Howell) and true freshmen (Jalen Camp, Stephen Dolphus, Jair Hawkins-Anderson, Quentin Spear) will get an opportunity, as will former A-back Mikell Lands-Davis.
With the receivers, the playing time is decided by their ability to block, as well as their skills a receiver.
Offensive line: The line will be led by senior center Freddie Burden, who missed spring with a hand injury but expects a complete recovery. Returning tackles are sophomores Trey Klock and Will Bryan, who started six games as a true freshman last year.
The big issue is at guard, where Shamire Devine has made great strides is getting closer to his ideal weight. Players and coaches both said Devine has worked hard in an attempt to reach his upside.
Defensive line: Things are solid up front with reliable Pat Gamble settled in at tackle and all-conference candidate KeShun Freeman on the end. Rod Rook-Chungong started eight games last season at the other end but could face competition from junior college transfer Desmond Branch and Anree Saint-Amour.
The other tackle spot likely will be manned by the physically gifted Francis Kallon, Kyle Cerge-Henderson or Brentavious Glanton, who made his presence felt during the spring game.
Linebacker: This spot has a solid duo to build around in senior P.J. Davis and Brant Mitchell, who started as a true freshman. Davis led the team in tackles last year and is a player who instinctively has a nose for the ball. Mitchell broke through with several big plays, including a pick-six, one of his two interceptions.
The other linebacker candidates include senior Chase Alford, Terrell Lewis, Victor Alexander and David Curry.
Secondary: This is an area that suffered the most losses. Safety A.J. Gray, who played 10 games as a true freshman in 2015, is a star in the making and cornerback Lawrence Austin has established his credential at the nickel.
Specialists: The special teams are in good hands with seniors Harrison Butker, who will be starting for the fourth season as place-kicker, and punter Ryan Rodwell, a consistent performer who averaged 39.3 yards a year ago.
Head coach: Paul Johnson (168-83 in 19 seasons overall; 61-44 in eight seasons at Georgia Tech).
2015 record: 3-9, 1-7 ACC.
Returning starters: Nine on offense; five on defense.
Players to watch: Justin Thomas (Sr., QB); Marcus Marshall (Soph., B-Back); Freddie Burden (Sr., C); KeShun Freeman (Jr., DE); Pat Gamble (Sr., DT); P.J. Davis (Sr., LB); Brant Mitchell (Soph., LB); A.J. Gray (Soph., S); Harrison Butker (Sr., PK)
Outlook: The Yellow Jackets have a lot to prove after last year’s huge dropoff from 11 wins in 2014. Georgia Tech had to play a lot of inexperienced players last year because of an unprecedented number of injuries. The season hinges on the success of the offensive line, the ability to keep Thomas upright and continued improvement on defense.
Sept. 3 vs. Boston College in Ireland
Sept. 10 Mercer
Sept. 17 Vanderbilt
Sept. 22 Clemson
Oct. 1 Miami
Oct. 8 at Pittsburgh
Oct. 15 Georgia Southern
Oct. 29 Duke
Nov. 5 at North Carolina
Nov. 12 at Virginia Tech
Nov. 19 Virginia
Nov. 26 at Georgia