In 11 years as head football coach at Georgia Southern University and Navy, Paul Johnson didn’t have to worry much about his players leaving early for the NFL.
He’ll enter his third season at Georgia Tech having to replace four players — safety Morgan Burnett, fullback Jonathan Dwyer, defensive end Derrick Morgan and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas — who entered the NFL draft after their junior seasons.
“It’s the neat thing about college football. Guys leave and guys come in,” Johnson said.
Dwyer, named to the all-ACC first team, ran for 1,395 yards in each of his two seasons playing under Johnson. Thomas, a first-round pick, was a first-team all-ACC selection and had 46 catches for 1,154 yards.
Morgan, also a first-round pick, was the ACC defensive player of the year and a first-team all-American. He had 12.5 sacks as a junior and 18.5 tackles for a loss. Burnett finished his career second on the school’s all-time interception list.
Johnson and the Jackets may not have to rely on incoming players to step into those voids. Junior Anthony Allen was third on the team in rushing last year and scored seven touchdowns. Allen (6 feet, 231 pounds) was a slotback a year ago and is the leading candidate to replace Dwyer.
Three other fullbacks — Lucas Cox, Preston Lyons and Richard Watson — also had playing time last year.
For Johnson, Dwyer’s departure should mean a chance for the other fullbacks.
“It’s another opportunity,” he said. “I’m sure Anthony Allen is looking at as an opportunity to replace Jonathan Dwyer, as well as Lucas Cox and Preston Lyons and Richard Watson.”
Replacing Thomas, who had 46 of Tech’s receptions and eight of the 11 receiving touchdowns a year ago, may be a little trickier. It also may take more than one person to replace the 6-3, 229-pound Thomas.
Sophomore Stephen Hill, a 6-4, 195-pound speedster, had six catches for 137 yards and a touchdown a year ago and also had a TD rushing. Tech also returns Tyler Melton, who started 10 games a year ago
“You replace them with a couple of guys and if you can get the same productivity out of that position, then you know you’ve accomplished what you want to do,” Johnson said.
Having Thomas especially taken so early — he was drafted 22nd overall by the Denver Broncos — could help Johnson eradicate the perception that playing in his unique option offense is detrimental to a player’s, particularly a receiver’s, pro prospects.
“I think it’s a positive. It helps recruiting,” Johnson said. “Not only was he drafted, he was the first receiver taken. Pretty soon, they can’t tell ’em they can’t make it out of that offense.”
Thomas and Morgan were the first players chosen in April’s NFL draft at their respective positions. Morgan’s spot will be filled by either sophomore Izaan Cross or junior Jason Peters as the Jackets move to a 3-4 defense from a 4-3 set.
Tech also lost two offensive linemen, including starting guard Joseph Gilbert, to early graduation. Gilbert and fellow redshirt sophomore Clyde Yandell graduated and attempted to get into Tech’s graduate business school. But they couldn’t, and they have instead transferred to Georgia State where they will go to grad school and play for former Tech coach Bill Curry’s first-year program.
“I wish them the best,” Johnson said.
But even before last season, Johnson and his staff were preparing for losing at least a handful of their top players to the NFL. They’ve had seven players in each of the last two years play as true freshmen — they had 14 signees redshirt in 2008 and had 29 redshirt players last year.
“Hopefully, if we’re doing our job, we’ve got another guy who’s ready to step in,” he said.