There are plenty of reasons Paul Johnson is eager to start the 2014 football season. And putting behind what has been a busier-than-usual offseason may not have a lot to do with it.
The Georgia Tech coach is about to start his seventh season with the Yellow Jackets, his longest head coaching stint among his three stops. In five years leading Georgia Southern’s program, he guided the Eagles to two NCAA I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) championships and three title games. He spent six years at Navy, leading the Midshipmen to two bowl wins and the program’s first 10-win season.
“We’re looking forward to the upcoming season,” he said. “Each year represents a new opportunity.”
Johnson will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, and he might be the fastest one the veteran option mastermind has ever coached. Justin Thomas, a state sprint champ in Alabama, enters fall practice as No. 1 on the depth chart.
Thomas, who played in 10 games last season, is taking over for Vad Lee. Lee left the program shortly after Tech’s Music City Bowl loss to Ole Miss. Thomas is only 5-foot-10, so the Jackets have to develop passing lanes for him.
“He does have blazing speed,” Johnson said of the redshirt sophomore. “He probably has the quickest release of anybody we’ve had at Georgia Tech throwing the ball. He has a strong arm.”
Thomas is getting pushed by Tim Byerly, a transfer from Middle Tennessee State who played sparingly a year ago. Johnson is happy with the progress each of his top two quarterbacks have made.
“Tim had a really productive spring, I thought,” Johnson said. “He did some good things. Going into fall camp, you have to somebody listed at 1. I think both of them did well. They’re both fun guys to coach.”
Johnson lauded Byerly’s toughness and his running ability.
“He’s a well-rounded guy,” Johnson said. “He can throw the ball. He’s got good speed.”
Not only did Lee depart in the offseason, but Ty Griffin, another backup quarterback, left after spring practice.
Recently, Johnson dismissed three players. Two defensive linemen left in the offseason, and signee Myles Autry, younger brother of one of the trio dismissed, asked for and was granted a release from his scholarship. Senior Jabari Hunt-Days, who moved from linebacker to defensive end, was declared academically ineligible but will practice with the team this season.
The defense, though, should be bolstered with the return of safeties Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden. Johnson missed the entire 2013 season, and Golden played in just three games before an injury sidelined him.
“I’m excited just to be back out there,” said the fifth-year senior Johnson. “It’s been a long time coming. I’m ready to be back out there with my guys and be out in the world I love so much.”
The Yellow Jackets lost two members of the secondary to graduation, including leading tackler Jamea Thomas. But four players got in on all 13 games, and another played in 12 last season. Golden and Johnson are rejoining what could the strength of the Jackets’ defense, a deep and now experienced, if still young, defensive backfield.
And Tech will be relying on its secondary more than ever this season, with a shift to a nickel defense as its base.
“It could be great,” Johnson said. “For the younger guys, I’ve seen them grow this past year. I gave them words of wisdom. They want it, they want that role of being the next guy at Georgia Tech.”
The Jackets, however, are virtually untested on the defensive line. Only Adam Gotsis returns as a starter on the front, though the Australian import has made an impact in his short time.
“Gotsis is an animal,” Isaiah Johnson said. “If he can bring some guys to our animal kingdom, we’re all good.”
Gotsis also has fit in well with his Georgia Tech mates.
“He’s grown accustomed to our ways, believe me,” Johnson said. “The words that come out of his mouth, you’d think he was a Southern guy — with an Australian twang.”
Coach Johnson is eager to have Johnson and Golden return to a defense that is short six starters from a year ago.
“We’re excited to get Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden back,” he said. “We played last year without our two starting safeties. We had to move guys around and do a lot of stuff.”
The Jackets coach hopes Shawn Green can secure one of the other defensive tackle spots and is anxious to see if younger players such as Pat Gamble and Francis Kallon are ready to accept expanded roles.
“We’re excited about Shawn Green, if he can stay healthy,” Coach Johnson said. “He has a chance to help us. The rest of it is going to be the young guys, the Pat Gambles, the Francis Kallons, the guys who were highly touted when they were recruited and need to step up and do some things.”
Though the Jackets are replacing three longtime starters on the offensive line, Coach Johnson is upbeat about the offense. Travis Custis, in line to play extensively at B-back, was another academic casualty.
Senior Zach Laskey enters the season as the starting B-back. He was fourth on the team in rushing a year ago with 487 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Zach Laskey probably had the best spring practice of anybody on our team,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the Jackets have options for the lead back in their option offense. Matt Connors has played, and the Jackets could move Donovan Wilson from A-back. Charles Perkins, another A-back, has played B-back, and freshman C.J. Leggett may play right away.
“So we’ve got some guys,” Johnson said, “and we’ve got some options at that position. We’ll settle that in fall.”