Georgia Tech’s early schedule isn’t conducive for another fast start.
The Yellow Jackets, who won their first six games of 2011, have a foreboding first month, beginning with Monday night’s game against 16th-ranked Virginia Tech. There are also home dates with Virginia and Miami before the Jackets turn the calendar to October.
“What a challenge the opening month of our season is,” said Jackets head coach Paul Johnson. “I doubt there would be another team in the BCS that opens up with three division games in the first four.”
The Jackets lost five of their last seven games, finishing 8-5 with back-to-back losses to archrival Georgia and in the Sun Bowl to Utah.
“We’re looking forward to hopefully finish this year better than last year,” Johnson said.
Johnson has one of the deepest teams he’s had since at arriving on The Flats in 2008. Quarterback Tevin Washington threw for 1,652 yards and ran for another 987 yards a year ago. He was responsible for 25 touchdowns and he enters his senior season at the helm of Johnson’s triple option spread offense.
And his quarterback, who had to play most of the game when the Jackets went to Blacksburg, Va., on a Thursday night two years ago in a 28-21 loss to Virginia Tech, knows what it’s like to play at Lane Stadium, Johnson pointed out.
“He’s matured every day,” the coach said. “He brings a lot of experience and leadership. He’s a tough competitor.”
A-back Orwin Smith averaged 10.1 yards per carry, rushing for 615 yards and 11 TDs. He also caught 13 passes for 306 yards. But Smith was hobbled with a turf toe injury late last season.
“Orwin’s going to be a big part of what we do,” Johnson said.
Smith wasn’t the only key Jacket hampered by injuries late in the season, Johnson noted. The Yellow Jackets had just six healthy offensive linemen for their Sun Bowl contest. The Jackets led 24-10 going into the fourth quarter, but they managed just 56 yards of offense in the final period.
“Last year, down the stretch, we got banged up pretty good,” Johnson said. “A lot of individuals were limited in what they can do. So you’re just kind of hanging on, hoping somebody doesn’t get hurt.”
Johnson, normally averse to hyperbole when speaking of his own team, was effusive in describing the potential of his offensive line. There’s only one senior, all-ACC guard Omoregie Uzzi, but all of the linemen on the two-deep roster played last year and some have played even longer.
“If we can keep guys healthy, this has a chance to be our best offensive line since I’ve been here,” Johnson said. “They’re still young. For the first time, we’ve got some depth and some guys who have been in the system for a while. If they play better, the B-backs play better.”
Tech’s B-backs, the fullback lined up just behind the quarterback, combined for more than 1,100 yards last season. But after three seasons of a starting B-back topping 1,300 yards, starter David Sims netted only 698 yards in 2011.
Johnson said the numbers from the position aren’t as bad as they might appear. Still, he wants the first option on the triple option to wreak more havoc.
“Clearly, it’s an area where we need to improve,” he said.
While the Jackets bring back a host of experienced A-backs — Smith, Tony Zenon, B.J. Bostic and redshirts Robbie Godhigh and Deon Hill — there is virtually no experience at wide receiver. None of Tech’s returning receivers has caught a pass as a Yellow Jacket.
Senior Chris Jackson, a transfer from Alabama, and junior Jeremy Moore, who has been plagued by injuries, are penciled in as starters. Johnson is enthusiastic about sophomores Jeff Greene and Darren Waller.
Greene and Waller have the size — Greene is 6-feet-4 and 210 pounds, and Waller is 6-5, 228 — and the speed that predecessors Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill possessed.
“We’ve got several guys who can run,” Johnson said. “Darren Waller and Jeff Greene can really run. We don’t have anybody who’s done it. But they have the ability.”
The Jackets have depth and experience in the defensive backfield. Starters Rod Sweeting, Jemea Thomas and Isaiah Johnson return, and Fred Holton comes back after missing last year with an injury. Johnson also likes what Jamal Golden has done.
“We’re excited about Fred,” the coach said. “He’s a big safety, and he can run. He can light you up, and he can cover people as well. We’ve got some depth there, too. We feel like we’ve got some potential back there in the secondary.”
While concerned about the depth on the defensive line — “I don’t know if you ever have enough defensive linemen,” Johnson said — starters Jeremiah Attaochu, Quayshawn Nealy and Daniel Drummond return at linebacker. Jabari Hunt-Days also has been impressive and likely will start in Drummond’s place Monday.
In all, Johnson, ever hard to please, is smiling about a young but deep team. The Jackets have only 10 scholarship seniors, he pointed out, but have 13 starters back.
“I think our athleticism is getting better and better,” he said. “I’m looking forward to watching them play.”