Yellow Jackets’ backfield walks into spring with confidence

ATLANTA — Jonathan Dwyer fondly remembers his last springtime foray as a member of Georgia Tech’s backfield.

It was tough, he recalls, cracking an occasional smile and reminiscing on the slew of fumbles and botched handoffs and pitches that littered Georgia Tech’s Rose Bowl Fields. But he said he always knew brighter days would come.

“Everybody was just eager to see what this offense could do,” he said. “I knew what it could do if everyone just fell into the system and believed it. And sure enough, that’s what we saw at the end of the season with all those games that we won and when we put up a lot of big points.”

Speaking underneath an awning Wednesday afternoon as rain pelted those same Rose Bowl Fields, Dwyer said his faith in the Yellow Jackets’ backfield has grown in the past 12 months, and he knows he isn’t alone.

Georgia Tech is working toward its spring game April 18 and its season opener Sept. 5 vs. Jacksonville State.

“You see a little swagger around here,” Dwyer said. “Everybody has a little confidence in their step and a little finesse in their step. We’re just so ready to play Jacksonville State.

“We don’t want to play against each other anymore. We’re tired of that. We want to play someone else and cheer each other on.”

While there are still more than 160 days remaining until the Yellow Jackets’ season-opener, looking at Georgia Tech’s backfield, it’s possible to get the sense that fall could only be right around the corner.

Running in shorts and helmets through team drills in option and run-and-shoot packages Wednesday afternoon, Georgia Tech’s running backs had the opportunity to wiggle through defensive holes, while also turning upfield into passing lanes.

With the option formations being run fluidly and — at moments — to perfection, the Yellow Jackets believe they look like a team that has been on the practice field before.

“Having a year of experience with the offense helps a lot,” sophomore A-back Roddy Jones said. “It helps things go a lot faster for us when we’re learning new things. Like if (head coach Paul Johnson) throws us different looks in practice, it’s stuff that we’ve seen before in games last year, and we just have to remember how we reacted then and do it the same way.”

Johnson, the Yellow Jackets’ head coach entering his second-year with the program, has already thrown a ton of different looks to his backfield this spring, including asking some players to move to other parts of the offense.

For example, Dwyer, who spent the 2008 season exclusively at B-back, took a number of snaps at the A-back position Wednesday. Jones is also getting looks at both running back positions, as is junior Lucas Cox and transfer Anthony Allen.

According to Johnson, it’s all to give the players different experiences learning as many running back positions to aid in creating depth.

“I don’t know that (the cross-training) is vital, but I do think it’ll help make us better,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to get the best 11 players on the field. It might mean putting three of them at B-back, so they’ll have to be able to move there, or it might mean putting them all at A-back, so they’ll have to be able to move.

“As you start to build the program up, the ideal thing is when you can have the depth to where if you miss a guy, you can move another guy in and you’re not staying up at night wondering who’s going to play if a guy gets hurt. We’re a little closer to that this year. We’re not there yet, but we’re a little closer.”

Dwyer, who led the ACC in rushing before being named the conference’s player of the year, believes the extra work in different parts of the backfield is helping him greatly prepare for the season.

“Really, it gets you in shape. And you’ve got to be able to think and really be on your toes and constantly moving,” Dwyer said. “It makes you a smarter football player and a more conditioned one, as well.”

Add that to the fact that Georgia Tech already displayed a level of intelligence by taking Johnson’s unfamiliar option offense and discovering immediate success with it, and the Yellow Jackets think they have good reason to believe they will field a dangerous team this fall.

“It’s a big confidence boost, having run this for a year, and having run it in games, and having the same guys in the game now,” Jones said. “We have the timing down. And running this offense for a year, we have a really good feel for each other. Everybody’s kind of jelling, and it’s already going really well.”