Jackets look to build on successes, bowl loss

ATLANTA — This offseason, when the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets reflect back on their 2008 season, there will be but one thing resting on their collective minds.

Recalling the festivities on the other side of the field that accompanied LSU’s blowout victory in last week’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Yellow Jackets likely will feel an awkward sadness the next few months as they painfully realize how close their season came to a sterling conclusion.

But while reflecting on that 38-3 New Year’s Eve loss may seem unbearable, the Yellow Jackets also believe they’ll stop and think about how far they came on this unexpected journey.

“I don’t think this (loss) affects our team moving forward,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “The 2008 season’s over, and I look forward to 2009. I’m proud of them for the season. I’m not going to let this put a damper on our year.”

Picked by several media outlets to finish the season with a 3-9 record and in the basement of the ACC standings, Georgia Tech bucked most predictions. The Yellow Jackets rolled to a 9-4 finish, a No. 14 ranking at the end of the regular season and a spot in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Narrowly missing a chance a chance to play in ACC championship, the Yellow Jackets finished the regular season with the conference’s highest national ranking, as well as its player of the year and coach of the year.

Of all the unexpected happenings surrounding Georgia Tech this past year, perhaps none was more surprising to those outside the team’s inner circle than the 45-42 win over Georgia in Athens. The victory catapulted Johnson’s option offense into the country’s consciousness and proved that the Yellow Jackets had the potential for big things thanks to the tricky, run-based system.

“Everyone was doubting us from the start,” sophomore defensive end Derrick Morgan said when asked if he thought the year was a success, “With nine wins and the win over Georgia, we feel that it was.”

One of the things that might have been most surprising about the Yellow Jackets’ perceived success was the fact that they learned a new style of offense while battling a slew of injuries to veteran players. Despite whatever hardships came their way, the young team found a way to translate those hardships into a strong season.

Fielding the ACC’s least-experienced program, the Yellow Jackets started 16 freshmen or sophomores in their 22 offensive and defensive spots during their final 10 games this season.

“We were trying to start a new era in this bowl game — the Paul Johnson Era,” B-back Jonathan Dwyer said in the Georgia Dome after the Chick-fil-A Bowl. “But we’ll have 16 out of 22 starters back next year, and we will definitely be using this game as motivation in the offseason.

“This was a big bowl for our seniors, and the whole team had a great time this week, but we hope to make it to an even bigger bowl next year.”

Swallowed up for just 67 rushing yards in the bowl game, Dwyer, the ACC’s leading rusher and player of the year, had one of his worst performances of the season while facing a bigger, more experienced LSU defensive unit. The sophomore is confident that next season’s group of players will dedicate winter, spring and summer workouts to ensuring that Georgia Tech experiences a confetti-filled celebration after the next bowl appearance.

“We have a lot of leaders coming back in the junior class and some very talented freshmen,” Dwyer said. “And with a full year learning this offense and being with this coaching staff, we have high hopes for next season.”

Leadership is one thing the Yellow Jackets did not seem to lack this season, as their small but vocal contingent of seniors stood up to the underclassmen, got them to quickly and fully embrace Johnson’s new offense and kept their motivation high after losses.

Among the seniors the Yellow Jackets will lose, at least five are expected to be selected in April’s NFL draft, including three who could be picked up the first day.

Stalwarts of Georgia Tech’s defensive line, defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Vance Walker likely will be early picks, along with offensive lineman Andrew Gardner. Suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in November, Gardner’s draft status is less clear than it once was, but he is still a high-round draft possibility as an athletic, consistent and quick-learning lineman. Also expected to be picked up are defensive tackle Darryl Richard and cornerback Jahi Word-Daniels. Quarterback Calvin Booker, a strong-armed pocket passer who didn’t fit in Paul Johnson’s offense, has a chance to be drafted, as well.

While Georgia Tech wishes much success to its now departed graduates, the remaining Yellow Jackets believe the seniors will be proud of where the program is headed.

“Next year is going to be a great year for us,” redshirt freshman A-back Roddy Jones said. “We have a season of learning this offense under our belts and we will definitely get better.”