Change is in the air at Georgia Tech. With the arrival of spring comes the arrival of the first set of live, full-contact practices the Yellow Jackets have had since their January defeat in the Orange Bowl. After losing four of their best players this offseason to the NFL, as well as four coaches from an often praised staff, they look to new faces to guide them to a second straight conference championship and beyond. So much has changed around their midtown Atlanta locale that even the practice field turf, chewed up by tough practices and heavy rainfall last fall, has been replaced. To help you get acclimated, here are five things to expect to see out of Georgia Tech’s spring:
1. Emergence of a solid No. 2: Just after the Yellow Jackets returned from Miami and their 24-14 Orange Bowl loss to Iowa, starting quarterback Josh Nesbitt underwent surgery to repair season injuries suffered to his ankle. Recovery, as expected, has been slow going, and so the rising senior will not be participating in any of this spring’s practices. Fans should not fret too much because while nursing a hamstring injury two springs ago, Nesbitt missed nearly all of the March and April workouts before leading Georgia Tech to a largely unexpected 9-4 record and Chick-fil-A Bowl berth in head coach Paul Johnson’s first season. And after second-string signal-caller Jaybo Shaw transferred several weeks ago to Georgia Southern, a three-man quarterback battle will ensue to play behind Nesbitt. Led by junior backup Tevin Washington, the Yellow Jackets hope to see if Washington will be able to outshine highly favored redshirt freshmen Jordan Luallen and David Sims. Luallen and Sims are expected to be the quarterbacks of the future for the Yellow Jackets once Nesbitt graduates next spring. Injured often last fall, Luallen did not play as much as coaches would have liked, and Sims entered camp looking slightly overweight and still unsure of his role and abilities in Johnson’s spread option offense. With experience and a season of training under their belts, expect both to challenge hard for that coveted backup spot. Receiver Quentin Sims also will get reps at quarterback, as he did last year.
2. The Al Groh effect: For the first time, Georgia Tech fans will have an opportunity to see Al Groh at work. The master of the 3-4 base defense, Groh’s on-field expertise will be put to the challenge this spring as he completely reinvents the Yellow Jackets’ defensive packages. Hired in January to become the team’s newest defensive coordinator, Groh came in following the firing of Dave Wommack, who experimented with 4-3 and 4-2-5 base defenses throughout his two-year tenure at Georgia Tech. A former NFL assistant and college head coach, Groh has used the 3-4 for decades to help develop Pro Bowl quality linebackers and defensive linemen. It will be interesting to see how Groh uses the pieces he currently has in place to make his linebacker-heavy scheme work. Already, the Yellow Jackets will be welcoming back starters Brad Jefferson, Steven Sylvester and Macon’s own Julian Burnett, but the addition of former defensive end Anthony Egbuniwe and Washington County’s Brandon Watts will provide a jolt of speed and size at outside linebacker, as well. On the defensive line, things currently look less fluid, as Johnson commented last week that he might see some of his defensive linemen switch over to offense if they don’t control weight and technique. As it stands now, however, 350-pound defensive tackle T.J. Barnes is the likely candidate to start at the only tackle position, with Logan Walls, Ben Anderson and redshirt freshman J.C. Lanier contending for time there, too. At defensive end, rising sophomore Izaan Cross and redshirt freshman Euclid Cummings will see time with Hawkinsville native Robert Hall and senior Jason Peters.
3. From the D-Train to A-Train: One of four players to leave Georgia Tech before their senior seasons, B-back Jonathan Dwyer leaves a bit of a hole at his position. The ACC player of the year two seasons ago and one of Georgia Tech’s all-time best rushers, Dwyer walks away leaving an indelible legacy on the program. Now, the focus turns to who can and will fill his shoes. Moving from A-back to B-back, senior Anthony Allen is expected to take the first-string snaps at Dwyer’s old position this week, giving the option offense a different look than it has had the past two seasons. Allen is expected to bring a level of quickness that the fullback-style position isn’t readily known for having. Like Dwyer, however, Allen is still a tough runner and will give the spot much the same power and elusiveness that helped give Dwyer the nickname “D-Train.” Behind Allen, B-back likely will be a logjam of talent. With the announced 10-game suspension of backup Daniel Drummond on Friday, the Yellow Jackets are expected to look for the combination of Preston Lyons, Richard Watson, Lucas Cox and true freshman Charles Perkins to fight for the second- and third-string roles. An early enrollee, Perkins is one of the stars of this latest recruiting class and is poised to get early playing time at B-back.
4. New orders: There are a total of four new faces on the coaching staff after assistants Giff Smith, Brian Jean-Mary, Jeff Monken and Wommack were either let go or left on their own. Smith, a longtime Johnson cohort, took a job on former Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey’s new Buffalo Bills staff, Jean-Mary took a job at Louisville, and Monken became the new head coach at Georgia Southern, replacing Macon native Chris Hatcher. Taking each of their places emerged four relatively new faces to the Yellow Jackets’ coaching roster. In addition to Groh, former Navy assistant Joe Speed comes in to coach linebackers and former N.C. State assistant Andy McCollum will lead the defensive line and recruiting efforts. A coach with Georgia ties, he is expected to continue Smith’s trend of recruiting Georgia athletes hard. The fourth coach, Lamar Owens, was already on the staff as a graduate assistant but earned a promotion as A-back’s coach, taking over Monken’s duties. An interesting mix of age, youth and experience, the new coaches and their still growing relationships with players should make for an interesting dynamic. In his mid-20s, Owens might be close in age to the players, but he has been on staff before and even played under Johnson. Groh brings Super Bowl experience to the defense, as well as a Johnson-esque, disciplined approach to coaching.
5. The comeback kids: Two Yellow Jackets in particular are attempting to come back from injury this season: safety Cooper Taylor and linebacker Kyle Jackson. Days after Georgia Tech’s September loss at Miami, Taylor was diagnosed with a stage of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and missed nearly all of the season as he recuperated from heart surgery to correct the rare condition. A tall, speedy defensive back, he was expected to serve as an occasional outside rusher and additional safety in passing situations. He will join safeties Dominique Reese and Rashaad Reid in hopes of offsetting the loss of All-ACC standout Morgan Burnett, who left a year early this offseason for the NFL draft. Along with Taylor, Jackson will be making a marginally muted return at linebacker, coming back from a foot injury suffered last spring that did not fully heal into the fall. The junior tried all kinds of unique methods to get back on the field, but nothing worked. He will be participating in a limited role this spring as he gets back into playing shape and into feeling full contact once again.