New-look Jackets open spring practice today

ATLANTA — Putting on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson looked down at the sheet of paper in front of him and read off the list of names scribbled upon it as if picking teams for a sandlot game.

“Let’s see, A.T. Barnes, Malcolm Munroe, Chris Crenshaw, they’re on (one) side,” Johnson said. “(Anthony) Egbuniwe, (Albert) Rocker, (Oshahon) Tongo, they’re on the other side.”

Detailing some of the many players he wants to work in at outside linebacker this week and for the next several, Johnson, during a news conference last week, indicated that there will be a host of faces outlining the Yellow Jackets’ depth chart at the key position between now and April 24’s T-Day spring game.

“That’s all fluid, all that could change once we get out there and start playing,” he said.

May the guessing game end and the action begin.

This afternoon, Johnson brings his Yellow Jackets out of their winter slumber — one that started after an ACC championship win over Clemson in December and an Orange Bowl loss to Iowa in January — and onto the practice fields for the start of spring workouts and the unofficial beginning of the 2010 season.

Workouts are open to the public and are tentatively scheduled to begin at 3:45 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday between now and April 23. The team also is expected to practice Saturday mornings inside Bobby Dodd Stadium.

A group that saw a bevy of off-field moves and maneuvers this offseason, the Yellow Jackets hope to prove to others, as well as themselves, that last year’s conference success can be replicated and extended into the bowl season.

“There’s a lot of excitement,” Johnson said. “We’ve had some coaching changes, some scheme tweaks so to speak, and anytime you do that, we can use everybody’s enthusiasm and everybody feels like that they’re on square one and everybody feels like they have an opportunity to play.”

Yes, change has definitely come to the Midtown Atlanta campus.

Just days after Georgia Tech’s 11-3 finish, the team learned four of its best players had plans of leaving the Institute a year early in hopes of beginning NFL playing careers immediately.

With their absences, new players are expected to emerge at B-back, receiver, defensive end and safety; spots that look less certain than they may have this time a year ago.

Take, for instance, the B-back battle. With relative ease, then-reigning ACC player of the year Jonathan Dwyer had the spot locked up last spring while the hunt was on to see who would be starting in the backfield with him at A-back.

This year, a much different story will be told. The favored starter — former A-back Anthony Allen — is not a lock at the position, Johnson said. And with the news Friday that backup Daniel Drummond would be ineligible for at least 10 games next season for violating NCAA eligibility rules, the battle has gotten even bigger with the emergence of true freshman Charles Perkins.

“I’m really impressed with him in the (morning) drills,” Johnson said of Perkins. “He’s definitely a player. So (at B-back) it’s not like it’s ‘You’re the anointed one, here you go, partner.’ There’s going to be some competition there, too.”

A high school senior in the fall, Perkins enrolled in Georgia Tech in January along with fellow freshmen Isaiah Johnson and B.J. Bostic. Each will be allowed to participate in spring practices.

In addition to the early departures of four star players, the Yellow Jackets this offseason watched a revolving door of coaching changes unfurl around them.

Gone are defensive coaches Dave Wommack, Giff Smith and Brian Jean-Mary, as well as A-backs coach Jeff Monken. Wommack was fired, while Smith, Jean-Mary and Monken left for vacancies with other programs.

Their departures opened opportunities at Georgia Tech for longtime NFL assistant and college head coach Al Groh, former N.C. State recruiting coordinator Andy McCollum, onetime Navy assistant Joe Speed and Yellow Jackets graduate assistant Lamar Owens. Once a player under Johnson, Owens earned his first coaching promotion, taking over Monken’s primary duties.

“With the coaches, it’s been smooth, it’s been good,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a good coaching staff. I’m excited about that and the relationship is good. It’s kind of what I thought it would be and where I want it.”

Heralded for his work with the linebacker-heavy 3-4 base defense, Groh is expected to reshape the Yellow Jackets defense after it surrendered more than 360 yards per game to opposing offenses last season.

In addition to the players on Johnson’s list at outside linebacker, look for Middle Georgians Julian Burnett, Brad Jefferson and Brandon Watts to have an impact on the interior this spring.

Placing his eldest and heaviest players on the thee-man defensive line — more for ease than anything else — Johnson will hold a conditioning-rich competition for the front line spots that could conclude in disappointment for some.

“More than likely, I’m going to move a defensive lineman or two to offensive line,” Johnson said. “I’ve challenged a couple of those guys with their conditioning and weight, if they don’t do a better job, I don’t want to lie to them, that’s where they’re headed.”