Two-a-Days rolls on with our ninth installment, in which we take a closer look at the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
To read previous entries, click HERE.
Georgia Tech in a flash:
Head Coach: Paul Johnson, third year
2009 Record: 11-3 (7-1 ACC), lost to Iowa in the Orange Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 422.14 ypg (1st ACC, 26th nationally), Total defense, 360.29 ypg (7th ACC, 54th nationally)
Coaching Changes: Al Groh hired as defensive coordinator. Joe Speed takes over as linebackers coach. Lamar Owens is promoted from grad assistant to A-backs coach. Charles Kelly given title of special teams coordinator.
Starters Returning: Offense (7), Defense (9), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: RB Johnathan Dwyer, WR Demayrius Thomas, DE Derrick Morgan, DB Morgan Burnett
Big Games: @ Clemson (10/23), @ Virginia Tech (11/4), Miami (11/13), @ Georgia (11/27)
Non-Conference Slate: South Carolina State (9/4), @ Kansas (9/11), Middle Tennessee (10/16), @ Georgia (11/27)
Despite losing to UGA last year, Tech was clearly the headlining act through most of the college football season in Georgia, and ended the year with an ACC title and a berth in the Orange Bowl. But while Paul Johnson's run in Atlanta has been exceptional thus far, he'll be tasked with replacing several key talents, including Demayrius Thomas and Derrick Morgan, both first-round picks in the NFL draft.
To find out how Johnson is handling the transition, I checked in with Coley Harvey, who covers Tech for the Macon Telegraph.
David Hale: No more Jonathan Dwyer means a big hole in Tech's Triple Option offense. How did Anthony Allen handle the role this spring, and how comparable can he be to Dwyer long-term?
Coley Harvey: Well, before I get too far into my answer, I've got to make one slight correction so as to avoid drawing a deathly glare from Paul Johnson next time I see him. He likes to refer to the offense itself as a spread option (I usually call it a "unique spread option" because, of course, it is not your typical spread). The triple option is just one set of plays that is run every once in a while out of the scheme. In fact, I don't recall seeing too many triple option plays this spring, so maybe they're phasing it out at Tech to usher in more plays? Who knows.
As far as Anthony Allen, I would argue that there has been absolutely no drop off from Jonathan Dwyer, Tech's onetime ACC player of the year at B-back. In fact, in sampling some of the thoughts of the regular fans who would show up at practices this spring, Allen may in some cases be better than Dwyer. Like his predecessor, the A-Train hits holes on the inside quickly. And with his usage as a slot back (A-back) on the outside edge last season, he knows how to turn the corner quickly off an option pitch. His speed is slightly different than Dwyer's. Dwyer had his knack for getting into open space and then just turning on the afterburners in a way that you might not expect a 230-240 pound back to do. Allen sort of glides into his speed and is deceptively quick. Also, like Dwyer, Allen has quickly turned into sort of a fullback at the position, seeking to run over and through defenders rather than around them. In this regard, I would argue Allen is better. Although Dwyer often lowered his shoulders and threw out stiff-arms to break tackles, Allen just uses his whole body to come right at potential tacklers, and that has meant some punishing pad-crunching pops around the practice fields this spring. He even bulked up a little to handle the hits this spring, but likely will shed 5-10 pounds in time for the season so that he can maintain his speed.
So, bottom line, Anthony Allen is ready to be the B-back of 2010 for the Yellow Jackets. Oh, and I'd be remiss to forget adding Lucas Cox and Richard Watson as capable backups behind him. Cox is a true fullback from a line of fullbacks (his dad played at Temple, his youngest brother is at a small school in the Northeast as one, and his oldest brother, Mike, was a fullback until 2007 at Georgia Tech. Mike is playing for the Kansas City Chiefs now) and runs like a bowling ball. Staying low to the ground, his primary objective is to move the pile forward, and that's what he's done this spring. At times, it has taken up to five players to bring him down.
DH: Elsewhere on the offense, Tech needs to replace three starters on the line and find someone to step up for the departed Demayrius Thomas. How helpful was this spring identifying candidates?
CH: Coaches would argue the spring was helpful identifying candidates on the line, but I'm personally not so sure. I believe the true test will come this fall when the Jackets get a few players back from injury. Of the starters you mentioned Tech will be missing, guard Joseph Gilbert will be transferring to Georgia State and fellow guard Cord Howard just signed as an undrafted free agent with the Buffalo Bills. While there was a bit of a revolving door at both tackle positions due to injury last year, two capable players will return this fall at those spots in sophomore Phil Smith and senior Austin Barrick. All-ACC center Sean Bedford returns at that spot.
The reason I say the spring didn't really help in identifying candidates is because so many guys on the line were either rehabbing offseason injuries, got injured or had class schedules that conflicted to the point that they could barely practice this spring. Smith was the guy who never saw the field, instead using practice time to recover from ankle surgery last December. The Tampa, Fla. native broke his ankle in the first quarter of Tech's ACC championship win over Clemson at Raymond James Stadium. Zach Fraysier, a backup center and likely candidate to play at guard was injured after the first week of practices this spring, breaking his foot. And Barrick, the former tight end turned tackle (he has one catch in his offensive line days; it came at Georgia in 2008), had classes that met during more than half the spring sessions. So that gave guys like the oft-injured Nick Claytor, Middle Georgia native Nick McRae, rising star Omoregie Uzzi, tackle Zach Krish and redshirt freshman Jay Finch plenty of opportunities to improve and get game and practice reps. With those guys getting a lot of snaps alongside Bedford, the first-team line was OK. It was far from great, as it got routinely manhandled by defensive end Jason Peters throughout the spring.
At receiver, more was discovered I'd argue, where junior Tyler Melton made strides as a potential starter (last season, he was the primary target across from Thomas), and sophomore Stephen Hill began to emerge. In the spring game, Hill caught a 70-yard touchdown pass off a play-fake that gave him plenty of time to get behind the secondary. He likely will be the main go-to guy for the Jackets, as he is a tall, big target for quarterback Joshua Nesbitt to throw to. Still a slender-framed wide out, Tech hopes to put a few more pounds on Hill (he added about 10-15 this offseason) so that he can be better suited to block in the offense. In fact, if there was any singular intangible Thomas had, it was that he was a great blocker. That might explain why he was a first-round pick in the draft.
Along with Hill and Melton, backups D.J. McKayhan, Quentin Sims and Kevin Cone played well also. McKayhan, however, was the most consistent. Although Hill will be the star to be sure, I'd expect to see the Jackets split up the receptions some this season and get more of a team effort at receiver instead of riding the one-man band that it used the last two years.
DH: I know at Georgia, the installation of the 3-4 defense was one of the big topics of the spring. Tech is going through a similar transition under Al Groh. How far did they get with it during the spring, and how did the players seem to take to the new system?
CH: It seems the Jackets got very far with the installation of the defense that Groh made famous in the NFL and at Virginia when he was head coach there. As the adage says, "There's nowhere to go but up from here." I believe that is a sentiment the Jackets defense took to heart this spring as it reflected on the 360 yards per game it allowed last season, and the 30-plus point totals of both Georgia and Clemson in two of its last three games.
Last season, there often was confusion in the secondary. Linebackers seemed to be out of place, linemen weren't getting any pressure and safeties and corners were just reacting at the last second to balls thrown over their heads because quarterbacks had all the time in the world to pass. It just wasn't a clean defense; and it was one where the Jackets were just trying too hard to do too much. This spring, although the 3-4 is a complex package as Georgia defenders are learning, the Jackets were able to break it down and make it look simplistic. And when I say look simplistic, I mean, it was all about physicality. As long as the defensive linemen took care of their responsibilities, the linebackers were free to roam to the quarterback or to ballcarriers or to the receivers whom they were assigned to pick up. It seemed as if the moving parts were a lot more fluid than they have been in recent past seasons.
Speaking of the installation process, I think a couple of things has helped the Jackets profoundly. First, Al Groh. The venerable former NFL assistant owns a Super Bowl ring and instantly commands one's respect and attention when he shows it. I believe the players instantly fell in love with him and are hinging on his every word. During practices this spring, it was quite common for the 65-year-old Groh to get in the middle of a drill and run it just to show his players what they're supposed to do. He also took time out to teach and give the players a better grasp of the intricacies of the scheme. The second thing that has helped is the fact the Jackets are no longer practicing solely against Johnson's option offense. The last two seasons, the defense never saw different offenses unless it was with the scout teams the week before playing a particular team. Already this spring, they've matched up against I-formations, shotguns, single-back formations, etc. That should help the 3-4 play fast, loose and quick as it already has.
DH: Part of the task of taking over the defense for Groh will be finding replacements for two of Tech's top defenders -- Morgan Burnett and Derrick Morgan. Did anyone stand out this spring that looks ready to fill in those gaps?
CH: Several guys stepped up this spring, with junior Jason Peters chief among them. Peters was a starting tackle last season who accounted for only 11 stops. I think he had 11 stops after the first practice alone this spring.
OK, I'm exaggerating that point a little bit, but Peters looked great. He used all kinds of stunts and moves to get around offensive tackles and into the backfield and the quarterbacks' faces in no time. At 270 pounds, he wasn't really suited for the inside, but he has proven to be a pretty good rush end. Getting help from outside linebacker likely will help free his lanes into the backfield, as well. Before moving to the inside, he was recruited as a defensive end and was among the top players at the position in his home state of Louisiana. He may be no Derrick Morgan -- I'd argue it may be quite some time until a talent like that comes to Tech again -- but Peters should be one fine replacement. At the other end, sophomore Izaan Cross has made strides, as well, and will be a star at Tech before his career is over.
At safety, the Jackets had a bit of a revolving door tryout. Cornerback Jerrard Tarrant was moved there after a fairly unproductive end to last season, and a host of other young players have been given chances to thrive there, as well. Mario Edwards, an Atlanta-area native whose best game last season was against Wake Forest three weeks before the Georgia game, came on to be a potential starter to replace Burnett. A hard-hitting, big-bodied safety, he was a backup much of his career after transferring from Virginia Tech, but now his confidence has seemed to soar now that he has become one of the most experienced players in the secondary.
Also playing at safety was Cooper Taylor, another Atlanta-area native who missed nearly all of last season with a rare heart condition known as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. He is fully recovered after emergency surgery during the season and he should compete for a starting job in the fall. As a freshman in 2008, he was one of the unexpected stars of the secondary, forcing a big goal line fumble in the closing seconds against Florida State to preserve a big home win. Joining him was Middle Georgian Jemea Thomas. A ball-hawking and hard-hitting safety, the speedy Thomas likely will be one of the major stars for the Jackets in years to come.
But the guy who likely will be the next Burnett, or maybe even better than him when it's all said and done, is true freshman Isaiah Johnson. An early enrollee, Johnson drew all kinds of attention from coaches for his indiscriminate nature in popping veterans and rookies alike hard. With his quick, unrelenting style of play, Johnson was all over the field this spring coming away with big hits and a few big picks. He's even wearing Burnett's old No. 1 jersey, so we'll see how well he lives up to the lofty expectations. So far, so good. Don't be surprised to see him on the field in Athens this fall.
DH: Much has been made of the triple option and more than a few fans of vanquished opponents have sworn that eventually teams will get used to Paul Johnson's system. Given how Tech ended the year with losses to Georgia and Iowa, is there any thought among Tech folks that maybe opponents are catching on? And have any new wrinkles been added this spring that will keep everyone on their toes?
CH: Haha, there is no thought whatsoever in Atlanta that anyone has "caught on." Paul Johnson just has too many wrinkles and too many new ideas he's been putting off. The Tech folks laugh when they hear talk that opponents believe they have found a supposed secret formula to beating the Jackets. In fact, fans were quite amused to hear that Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster went to Iowa City, Iowa this offseason to get his hands on the supposed defensive blueprint the Hawkeyes used to dethrone the Jackets in the Orange Bowl in Miami in January. To them, such a thing does not exist.
For instance, if you look at the Georgia game, most Tech fans would argue, that game was the result of a well-thought out offensive gameplan by Georgia coaches to run, run, run right at the Jackets' often confused defense. Not only did the Bulldogs eat up yards and churn their way toward the end zone, but they also took away valuable time off the clock from the Jackets, who were kings of time of possession in every game they won last season. In a sense, that was a sound formula. It threw the entire team off its rhythm, and even the offense looked a step or two out of sync from what it had been like the rest of the season. Willy Martinez had perhaps the gameplan of his life, to be sure, but the Jackets just did not have the same offensive energy that they would showcase a week later against Clemson.
Against Iowa, the Jackets had no energy at all. Once Dwyer's opening-play run for a likely would-be touchdown was negated by a false start, it seemed Tech was completely out of that game. Much like Georgia, the Hawkeyes sported a fast, aggressive defensive front that was focused solely on creating penetration in the Jackets' offensive line. And with again, a young, inexperienced line, it was easy to do that. That would explain why a defensive end (Adrian Clayborn) was named the game's MVP; he had nine tackles and two sacks.
So if there's a formula, it definitely is that. The ends have to be athletic enough to stretch the field on the runs to the edge and the pitches outside. The linebackers have to be quick enough to get outside and negotiate the low cut blocks that will be coming their way. The rest of the defensive line has be able to penetrate all the time.
But again, I'd argue that while that formula may work at times, it won't always work because Johnson is the master of the on-the-fly adjustment. This spring there have been a few plays and formations run that haven't been seen on the Flats. Chief among them have been the shotguns sets -- which could just be a front to get the defense experience playing against them. Johnson won't tip his hand one way or the other if and when the shotgun might appear in games. There have been other unique handoffs and pitches to the running backs that have not been showcased in past seasons at Tech, too. So while blueprints may be floating out there to stop the 2009 Jackets, I'd say, this is 2010 and you never know what you're going to get.
Many thanks to Coley for the thorough answers to my queries. You can read Coley's Tech coverage HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.
So what do you guys think? I'm assuming there won't be many kind words directed at the Techies, but setting hatred aside for a second, how tough a task do you think it will be to replace Dwyer, Thomas and change the defensive scheme?
And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.NEXT UP: Kentucky this afternoon.