The Georgia Tech football team is ready to close the curtain on the disappointment of 2017 and focus on its possibilities of the new season.
There will be an entirely new scene on The Flats this fall, as coach Paul Johnson begins his 11th season at the school.
The Yellow Jackets are going ga-ga over their new apparel deal with Adidas. They just moved into their $4 million state-of-the-art locker room. They’re welcoming in a new defensive coordinator, who has shaken up the depth chart and introduced a new scheme.
After going 5-6 and failing to earn a bowl invitation for the second time in three years, the Yellow Jackets are trying to accentuate the positive.
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“This is probably the only sport that you really get to start over completely,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “Everyone’s record is 0-0. You get to start over. Going into Sept. 1 (season opener vs. Alcorn State), we know that’s a game we get to start over with.”
Now that the team has reported to camp, here are five questions that Georgia Tech needs to answer to have a successful season.
Will TaQuon Marshall take the next step and become a better all-around player?
The senior moved into the starting lineup last year and led the team with 1,146 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. It was the most rushing yards by a quarterback in Tech history.
However, Marshall tried to do too much at times and needs to get more comfortable pitching to the A-backs. He also needs to show progress as a passer; he threw for only 927 yards and completed just 43 passes, the lowest figures by a quarterback at the school since 2010.
“This off-season I’ve really been working on the passing game,” Marshall said. “Last year I struggled a lot hitting some of the guys that were wide open, just throwing the ball in general. So that’s one of the things we’ve been working on a lot this summer.”
Is KirVonte Benson the next big, productive back at the school?
The junior had a breakthrough season in 2017 when he rushed for 1,053 yards. He had to shoulder much of the burden at B-back after Dedrick Mills, the leading rusher in 2016, got kicked off the team for rules violations on the eve of training camp.
Benson, a sturdy 208-pound junior from Marietta, was a workhorse. He carried the ball 204 times, including 29 times against Pitt. Coach Paul Johnson said, “KirVonte can be a special back if he stays healthy.”
That would put him in company like Jonathan Dwyer, Anthony Allen and Zach Laskey — B-backs who have flourished in Johnson’s offense and wound up in an NFL camp.
Who’s going to catch the ball?
That may be the biggest area of need. Tech graduated leading receiver Ricky Jeune, who is in camp with the Dallas Cowboys. Other than Brad Stewart, who caught 19 passes as a sophomore and four as a junior, the remainder of the receivers have a total of one catch.
“I’m going to go in with the highest expectations,” Stewart said. “I’d love to be the go-to receiver. Coach Johnson is straight up, and he says we’re going to run the play, and we’re going to go to the guy who is being productive that game, whoever’s making the play. It’s up to me and up to the guys individually.
“If you want the ball, what are you going to do to get it?”
Among those who will get a chance to play this spring is sophomore Stephen Dolphus, who played at Westside.
How is this new 3-4 defense going to work?
The Yellow Jackets have a new defensive coordinator in Nate Woody, who ran the 3-4 when he was at Appalachian State. Johnson expects the defense to be quicker and play with more instinct. The idea is to create more negative plays and be a more disruptive force.
“It’s an attack-style defense,” senior linebacker Brant Mitchell said. “We’re going to be moving a lot more. I think our defense is a little more unpredictable than it’s been in the past. It’s going to help our guys just kind of let loose a little bit and play fast and show how athletic we are.”
The outside linebackers should have more freedom to get after the quarterback. Last season the team had 17 sacks, and 5.5 of those came from Antonio Simmons, who graduated and is in camp with the Denver Broncos. Returners like Victor Alexander, the leading tackler last season, Jaquan Henderson and Jalen Johnson have the skills to get in the backfield.
Who is going to play in the secondary?
Woody inherited a good nucleus of linemen and linebackers, but he is restocking the secondary. That effort took a blow in the spring when safety A.J. Gray, a former Georgia High School Player of the Year from Washington County, had to quit because of a heart condition. (Gray will serve as a student coach this season and work with the defensive backs.)
“We’ve got some talented guys, but we’ve got to watch them play and see what they can do,” Johnson said. “That’s one spot where we may not play as many people as other places. By the time we come out of our first two weeks, we’ll have a good idea of what freshmen can do back there, who can contribute and who can play.”
The most experienced players back there are senior Lamont Simmons and junior Christian Campbell, who both played in all 11 games last season. Tariq Carpenter began his freshman season injured but made his debut against Miami and played the final six games.