Suddenly spring: Three months after Orange Bowl loss, Jackets return to the field

ATLANTA — To Izaan Cross, just days ago it seemed he and his Georgia Tech teammates were deplaning from a week-long stay in less-than-typically-tropical Miami, coming back home from a stinging Orange Bowl defeat.

In actuality, it has been more like three months; three lightning-fast months that have suddenly given way to spring and the beginning of the Yellow Jackets’ first wave of offseason practices.

“It came by way too fast,” Cross said, laughing. “It just seemed quick; real quick.”

Taking to their newly renovated Rose Bowl practice fields Monday, perhaps in a blink of an eye, the Yellow Jackets returned to action for the first time since losing in South Florida to Iowa.

It also was the first time they took to the fields in full, live action since the winter additions and subtractions of key players and staff.

Gone are four assistants and several players who either graduated or — in the case of stars Derrick Morgan, Jonathan Dwyer, Morgan Burnett and Laurens County native Demaryius Thomas — left school a year early to test out their NFL draft potential.

With them all out of the picture, Georgia Tech this spring has welcomed four new assistant coaches, headlined by defensive coordinator Al Groh. The Yellow Jackets themselves have also undergone several position changes.

To some, all this newness, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, could hearken back to practices this time two years ago, when head coach Paul Johnson first came to the Flats and began installing his unique spread option offense with a group that had largely never seen such play calls and offensive strategies.

He doesn’t believe it does.

“I hope not,” Johnson said. “There’s some different calls and some different techniques and different terminology, but the bottom line is, you’ve got to shed blocks and tackle people. The better players are going to come to the forefront very quickly.”

In addition to the hiring of Groh, Georgia Tech also hired a new linebackers coach and a new defensive line coach on that side of the ball alone.

The demeanor of Andy McCollum, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, is vastly different than that of his predecessor Giff Smith, Cross said.

“It’s not a little difference, total difference,” the sophomore defensive end said. “Coach Giff’s personality and Coach McCollum’s personalities are totally different. And it’s just different in the meetings and out there on the field. The way you expect them to react to things is totally different. We’re used to Giff where we messed up, uh oh, oh God. But with McCollum, he’s understanding a little bit.

“It’s a good difference. It’s quick to adjust to him.”

Continuing on the subject of personalities, Groh, a former NFL assistant coach and college head coach, proved his own can be much more intense than his calm, stately, off-field demeanor might initially suggest.

Barking orders and offering occasional teaching moments Monday, Groh showcased a firm tenacity that rivals what Johnson often offers during games. It was clear after taking one look at Groh coach that Johnson seems comfortable maintaining a largely hands-off approach to the defense.

“The neat thing about the spring is that I just kind of walk around and be more involved in watching everything and just looking,” Johnson said. “Coach Groh has coached a long time. I’m sure he can handle the defense.”

For the remainder of the spring season, Johnson said he wants to make sure each player understands his individual role in Georgia Tech’s ever-expanding playbook.

As the Yellow Jackets move from a 4-3 and 4-2-5 base defensive scheme to Groh’s 3-4, Johnson will be looking for improved play even during learning phases.

“With a new system and new coaches, you want to get the familiarity down and build some depth and just get better,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s got some things they need to get better at individually, and we’ve got a lot of things as a team that we can get better at.”