2015 CFB Preview – Georgia Tech

    Georgia Tech Yellow JacketsGo to Team Page Yellow JacketsGo to Selection Page           The ACC’s surprise team of 2014 flipped

    June 30, 2015

    Georgia Tech
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    The ACC’s surprise team of 2014 flipped the script without a ton of help from seniors.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    Georgia Tech, which had been floundering for four seasons under Paul Johnson, emerged without warning to win 11 games, the Coastal Division and the Orange Bowl over Mississippi State, 49-34. The team also snapped a nasty five-game losing streak to rival Georgia … Between the Hedges. It was exactly the kind of bounce back that the program—and its coach—urgently needed.

    And unlike the last time the Jackets won 11 games and appeared in the Orange Bowl in 2009, this subsequent team is built to maintain a high level of play.

    The Yellow Jackets welcome back at least seven starters to each side of the ball, none more important than QB Justin Thomas, the microcosm for his team’s unlikely ascent a year ago.

    Thomas was the quintessence of a Johnson-led point guard, deftly distributing the ball and making his own magic, in and out of the pocket. And when Georgia Tech is set under center, expectations run justifiably high. But for the Yellow Jackets to match last season’s ACC-leading output, they’ll have to cobble together a supporting cast that keeps Thomas from being a solo act.

    Sure, Tech is known for birthing system running backs, but the attrition has been so stark from 2014 that there’s genuine concern regarding the state of the skill positions. If the new backs and receivers are even the least bit unsure of themselves, it’s going to hamper Thomas’ rhythm and effectiveness.

    Fortunately for the Yellow Jackets, the defense is better positioned to pick up some slack than it was at this time last year. Ted Roof’s D was young in 2014 … and it often showed. But now that the group is a year older, it’s prepared to swarm with speed and tenacity at all levels.

    The defensive backfield is deep and experienced, P.J. Davis spearheads the linebackers and there’s quiet optimism that the front four is about to peak. If, as expected, Tech is tougher at the line of scrimmage in 2015, it’s going to profoundly impact the entire program. This unit must deliver, though, or else a repeat of last fall becomes a distinct possibility.

    It turns out that Georgia Tech didn’t peak in 2009 after all, as feared by so many of the program’s fans. Now, the Yellow Jackets want to build off last season’s sudden breakthrough by maintaining the buzz despite being in the unfamiliar position of Coastal Division favorite.

    Above all else, this program is determined to sidestep the mediocrity that plagued the last Georgia Tech team to make a national statement six years ago.

    What to look for on offense: Thomas’ new toys. QB Justin Thomas returns, exciting news for Tech fans. But who’ll fill out his supporting cast? Not only are last year’s top four backs and top four pass-catches gone, but likely B-back starter C.J. Leggett and backup Quaide Weimerskirch suffered serious spring injuries. Marcus Allen, who’s played linebacker and wide receiver, has risen to the top of the depth chart by default, and Stanford transfer Patrick Skov could be an option. Fingers are crossed that speedy Michael Summers and emerging Ricky Jeune can fill the pass-catching—and downfield blocking—void left by DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller. The skill positions are a fluid situation on the Flats.

    What to look for on defense: JHD no longer MIA. Jabari Hunt-Days practiced in the spring, and is close to regaining full academic eligibility after missing all of last season. And the Yellow Jackets could not be happier by the development. Hunt-Days has packed on the muscle since being idle, without losing his athleticism, to outgrow his old defensive end spot. He’s now a near-300-pound tackle, who repeatedly tore through the offensive line in April. Assuming Hunt-Days clears his classroom hurdles and builds off a stellar spring, he and Adam Gotsis will be terrors for opposing blockers this fall.

    The team will be much better if … the defense finally toughens up. There’s a quiet confidence around Atlanta that this could be Georgia Tech’s best defense in years. It better be, because the squad got bullied at times last fall. Sure, the Yellow Jackets were feisty and opportunistic, creating plenty of turnovers, but they struggled to hit the quarterback, yielded five yards per carry and ranked 111th nationally in yards per play. In short, they were soft. There are too many quality returners, including five named All-ACC, to repeat the enigmatic performance of 2014.

    The Schedule: Somebody doesn’t like Georgia Tech. Having to go to Clemson and hosting Florida State is as unfair as it gets in interdivisional play. If that wasn’t enough …
    – Not only is Georgia Tech one of Notre Dame’s ACC games, but it’s on the road. Duke should be a manageable game, but that’s on the road and it comes right after the date with the Irish. If that wasn’t enough …
    – Those dates against the Irish, Blue Devils and Tigers come in a stretch of three road games in four weeks, and Florida State comes two weeks later. If that wasn’t enough …
    – There’s the annual non-conference rivalry game against Georgia to close things out, and that comes after a road trip to Miami.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … The home game against Pitt. Sandwiched in between a road trip to Clemson and the Florida State showdown, there can’t be a hiccup. The Yellow Jackets have to take advantage of every home game.

    Best Offensive Player: Junior QB Justin Thomas. In Thomas, Georgia Tech has perhaps found an ideal quarterback to orchestrate Paul Johnson’s version of the spread offense. And he’s still ascending after debuting as a starter in 2014. Thomas is lightning quick in space, a prerequisite for an option quarterback, and his ability to snap off throws is a real problem for defenses that ignore his arm. Plus, he oozes confidence and leadership at the helm of the offense, and will be even more dangerous as his overall decision-making improves.

    Best Defensive Player: Senior NT Adam Gotsis. Gotsis is the centerpiece of a defensive line that figures to be vastly improved this season. He’s a versatile and disruptive force on the interior, with a next-level package of skills that warrants double-teams. And the fact that he’s comfortable sliding back to the nose, after playing defensive tackle in 2014, will allow Jabari Hunt-Days to accept his well-deserved place in the lineup. While Gotsis remains completely overlooked nationally, he’s on the radar of NFL scouts, who could eventually use him at multiple positions.

    Key players to a successful season: The next generation of backs. Even the slightest hiccup in the running game could prove devastating to a team that relies so heavily on the ability to pound opponents into submission. So, the concerns about the dearth of proven backs are real, even as plug-and-play suggestions are lobbed. Since the Yellow Jackets don’t want QB Justin Thomas to shoulder the entire load, it’s incumbent upon A-backs Broderick Snoddy and Dennis Andrews, and B-back Marcus Allen to step into the void without skipping a beat.

    The season will be a success if … the Yellow Jackets return to the ACC Championship Game. Georgia Tech has the best blend of offensive and defensive talent in the Coastal, so shooting for anything less than another divisional crown would be aiming too low. That said, the team will have to earn its spot in Charlotte, facing a thorny schedule that includes crossover games with both Florida State and Clemson. Virginia Tech, though, visits the Flats in a late-season matchup that could a long way to determining one-half of the league title bracket.

    Key game: Nov. 12 vs. Virginia Tech. Visiting Notre Dame and Clemson. Hosting Florida State in a sequel to last December’s thrilling ACC Championship Game. Georgia in Atlanta. All pivotal, must-view matchups. But this year’s battle of the Techs at Bobby Dodd Stadium could thrust the winner into the Coastal Division driver’s seat. An upset of the Hokies in Blacksburg last September kick-started the 2014 title chase, but Virginia Tech boasts enough returning talent to represent the division in Charlotte this year.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Rushing yards per game: Georgia Tech 299.3 – Opponents 115.8
    – Yards per catch: Georgia Tech 18.4 – Opponents 11.9
    – Red-zone touchdown%: Georgia Tech 82% – Opponents 62%

    What you need to know about the offense: QB Justin Thomas was a revelation in 2014, piloting the offense to unexpected heights. But can he duplicate his debut without the help of so many key contributors from a year ago? Tech led the ACC in a bunch of categories, including scoring and overall efficiency. However, from that 38-point-a-game attack, not a single key skill position player returns. And possible heirs, such as B-backs C.J. Leggett and Quaide Weimerskirch, suffered serious spring injuries. The Yellow Jackets will dispatch APBs for capable runners, which means an early opportunity for true freshmen and Stanford transfer Patrick Skov to contribute. Veteran backs Broderick Snoddy, Dennis Andrews and Marcus Allen can at least take solace in the return of four starting linemen from 2014. All-star G Shaq Mason will be tough to replace, and April’s season-ending injury to Chris Griffin smarts, but Tech will again be stout at the point of attack. Close attention will be given to the weight of 365-pound sophomore G Shamire Devine, who has starter potential if his conditioning improves before August.

    What you need to know about the defense: Up. Then down. Tech can’t seem to locate defensive consistency for coordinator Ted Roof. But after playing soft and ineffectively a year ago, the Yellow Jackets believe the pendulum is about to shift in a more positive direction. The 2014 squad lost badly at the line of scrimmage, resulting in just 20 sacks and one of the highest yards per play in the FBS. Even a secondary with individual talent became overmatched by the lack of support. However, Tech promises to be much stronger at the line of scrimmage in 2015, which will have a ripple effect on the back seven. Jabari Hunt-Days is expected back from academic suspension, teaming with Adam Gotsis to give punch from the inside. Plus, Freshman All-American DE KeShun Freeman is bigger and wiser, and transfer DE Kenderius Whitehead is ready to contribute. If the D-line plays up to its ability, ball-hawking defensive backs D.J. White, Jamal Golden and Chris Milton will be the beneficiaries on errant and forced throws. For all of its problems last year, the Jacket D excelled at creating turnovers and short fields.

    Players You Need To Know

    1. QB Justin Thomas, Jr.
    Thomas was thrust into the deep end of the water after starter Vad Lee unexpectedly transferred to James Madison. And he not only remained afloat, but he navigated choppy first-year waters like Michael Phelps. Thomas delivered arguably the best season ever for a Paul Johnson quarterback, showcasing his arm and athleticism in a Third Team All-ACC debut. Thomas rushed for a Tech-high 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns on 190 carries, while also completing 96-of-187 passes for 1,719 yards, 18 touchdowns and six picks. Plus, the 5-11, 189-pound wunderkind was instrumental in guiding the Jackets to the Coastal crown, an upset of rival Georgia and an Orange Bowl rout of Mississippi State.

    2. DT Adam Gotsis, Sr.
    Gotsis has come a long way since his days as a rugby and Aussie Rules Football star in Abbotsford, Australia. The 6-5, 282-pound rising star took a quantum leap in his development last year, evolving into a Second Team All-ACC performer from the interior. He’s still a little raw, as expected. But his combination of brute strength, long arms and quickness forces opponents to commit multiple blockers to him. While Gotsis’ numbers dipped to 36 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss and three sacks because of the extra attention, his presence in the middle makes everyone around him a lot more effective.

    3. LB P.J. Davis, Jr.
    In a season full of surprises on the Flats, few were bigger than Davis. He went from a rookie with potential in 2013 to one of the ACC’s best young linebackers a year ago. The 5-11, 218-pounder was in the lineup from wire-to-wire, advertising the speed and the motor to make plays in every direction. Davis brings it for 60 minutes, an infectious level of energy that led to a Tech-high 119 tackles, 8.5 stops for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles. He’s set to blow past last year’s honorable mention All-ACC recognition.

    4. FS Jamal Golden, Sr.
    The Yellow Jackets are thrilled by the return of Golden, the recipient of a fifth year after missing most of 2013 to a shoulder injury. Golden is Tech’s resident playmaker, both as a centerfielder at free safety and as one of the ACC’s most dangerous return men. He played following a move from corner, making 61 stops, four tackles for loss, four picks and three forced fumbles. The 6-0, 193-pound Golden has great instincts and vision, and he’s dangerous with the ball in his hands.

    5. DE KeShun Freeman, Soph.
    Freeman was revelatory in his first season out of Callaway (Ga.) High School, providing the heat off the edge that Tech desperately needed. He was a very quick study, never leaving the lineup after cracking it in Week 3. While built like a linebacker at 6-1 and 236 pounds, Freeman can whip larger opponents with his long arms, first step and closing speed. The improbable honorable mention All-ACC selection debuted with 54 tackles, a team-best 9.5 stops for loss, 4.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries.

    6. CB D.J. White, Sr.
    After performing well in sub-packages as a rookie in 2013, White took his game to a higher level last fall. He’s a fleet-footed playmaker, whose chemistry with FS Jamal Golden was a huge reason why the Yellow Jacket D was so opportunistic in 2014. The 5-11, 188-pound White has uncanny instincts and a nose for the ball, making 66 tackles, four interceptions and a team-high eight pass breakups. The honorable mention All-ACC pick will be playing this year to improve his draft prospects.

    7. DT Jabari Hunt-Days, Sr.
    Hunt-Days was pegged as the pass-rushing successor to Jeremiah Attaochu last season. Instead, he was forced to impress the staff on the scout team, the result of an academic suspension. While it allowed others in the front seven to develop, the presence of Hunt-Days was missed. He’s a veteran of 21 career starts and 129 career tackles. And at a solid, beefed-up 6-3 and 295 pounds, he has the potential to bring much-needed size and muscle to the interior after shifting inside from end.

    8. C Freddie Burden, Jr.
    The Yellow Jackets are excited by the potential of Burden, who laid a great foundation for the future in 2014. In his first action, following a redshirt in 2012 and a yearlong knee injury in 2013, he started every game at the pivot. Furthermore, he played well enough to garner honorable mention All-ACC attention. At 6-3 and 302 pounds, Burden moves extremely, a must in this offense, and his future on the Flats is extremely bright.

    9. OT Bryan Chamberlain, Sr.
    Now that Shaq Mason is gone, Chamberlain is the new veteran of the O-line, having started 34 career games and earned honorable mention All-ACC in 2014. The versatile 6-4, 295-pounder brings a good mix of size, strength and agility to a unit that demands its blockers to get to the second level as quickly as possible. Chamberlain also has a solid grasp of the offense and a knack for keeping the pocket clean, a key now that Tech passes the ball more than usual. He’s capable of playing left tackle or left guard in 2015.

    10. RB Broderick Snoddy, Sr.
    Someone is going to benefit from the graduations of last year’s top four running backs. Why not Snoddy? The team’s A-back has been used sparingly throughout his career, but his track speed should entice the staff to use him more liberally once he returns from a grisly broken leg suffered last November. The 5-9, 190-pounder has shown homerun potential when opportunities have arisen, rushing 28 times last year for 283 yards and three scores, while turning three receptions into 100 yards.

    Head Coach: Paul Johnson
    8th year: 58-35
    Schedule

    Sept. 3

    Alcorn State
    Sept. 12 Tulane
    Sept. 19 at Notre Dame
    Sept. 26 at Duke
    Oct. 3 North Carolina
    Oct. 10 at Clemson
    Oct. 17 Pitt
    Oct. 24 Florida State
    Oct. 31 at Virginia
    Nov. 7 OPEN DATE
    Nov. 12 Virginia Tech
    Nov. 21 at Miami
    Nov. 28 Georgia
    Ten Best Georgia Tech Players
    1. QB Justin Thomas, Jr.
    2. NT Adam Gotsis, Sr.
    3. LB P.J. Davis, Jr.
    4. FS Jamal Golden, Sr.
    5. DE KeShun Freeman, Soph.
    6. CB D.J. White, Sr.
    7. DT Jabari Hunt-Days, Sr.
    8. C Freddie Burden, Jr.
    9. OT Bryan Chamberlain, Sr.
    10. RB Broderick Snoddy, Sr.

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