By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
The last three months have been endless for Georgia Tech football players, as they've had to wait for the opportunity to use the John and Mary Brock Football Practice Facility as a team.
Beginning Monday, March 26, however, "The Brock" once again becomes their "Practice Field of Dreams."
The dreaming actually began last Friday when 14 former Yellow Jackets used the indoor facility to showcase themselves to NFL scouts on Pro Day. Many of the current Jackets were in attendance as a show of support.
On Monday, the current Jackets will take the first steps in making their 2018 dreams come true. Spring football begins with three weeks of workouts, culminating in the annual Spring Game, which takes place at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field on Friday, April 20.
"I'm looking forward to it," said head coach Paul Johnson during Pro Day. "We've got a couple of guys that had offseason surgery that are probably going to be out for the spring -- three or four -- but for the most part we'll have everybody."
The opportunity to officially put the bizarre and often times nightmarish 5-6 2017 season behind them can't come soon enough for rising senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who won the starting job in last year's spring practice and this time comes in, knowing he'll have the reins from day one.
"I'm real excited to get back on the field and see how everybody's energy is going to be. I know I, personally, am VERY excited to get back out there because it's been a long time coming," said Marshall, who led the Jackets in rushing (1,146 yards), setting a Georgia Tech quarterback single-season rushing record. "Just really see how everything is going to come together."
Johnson believes things should come together quite for Marshall in his second year running the offense.
"He was explosive, he made a lot of great plays for us. A lot of times he made things when there wasn't much there," Johnson said. "Just be more consistent in his reads in the passing game. I think he'd probably be the first to tell you he'll be a lot more comfortable this year after having done it for a year. Most guys will tell you it slows down a little bit that second year."
Marshall, who was among ACC leaders in scoring (10.2 ppg), rushing touchdowns (17), total touchdowns (17), points scored (102), rushing (107.4 ypg) and points responsible for (15.8 ppg), agreed.
"Like Coach Johnson said, it'll slow down to me because I'm used to it now and I'm used to the game speed," he said. "We started looking at some film this week and just seeing some of the mistakes I made this past season, some of it was kind of new to me, but it'll be fine.
"I really wanted to focus on my passing and try to get my drops down," added Marshall, who completed 37.7 percent of his throws, but had a 2:1 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (10 TDs vs. 5 INTs). "That was one of the main things I really wanted to focus on, getting the ball out on time and getting the ball to the right spots and things that, in the game, I remember seeing on film, that we could work on, with the A-Backs and the receivers."
Most of the A-Backs and B-Backs from last year return, as Tech's top five rushers not named Marshall -- B-Back KirVonte Benson, also a 1,000-yard rusher (1,053), A-Backs Nathan Cottrell, Qua Searcy, and Clinton Lynch and B-Back Jerry Howard -- return. Also promising to get some looks is redshirt freshman, Jordan Ponchez-Mason.
"We'll start him at B-Back but he's probably going to play both this spring and we're going to try to give him every opportunity to get on the field," said Johnson. "He's one of our bigger athletes in the skill positions so we want to try to use him if we can."
Ricky Jeune , Tech's top receiver the last three years, departs, but Marshall is confident in the group behind him, which includes rising senior Brad Stewart (4 catches, for 99 yards and a TD) and a talented group, hungry to see the field.
"I'd say keep an eye out for Stephen Dolphus, Jalen Camp and, of course, Brad is going to bring something to the table," said Marshall. "Jair (Hawkins-Anderson) has a lot of speed so I know he can get behind a lot of guys and (redshirt freshman) Adonicas (Sanders), he's a pretty good guy, too, at receiver."
There will be some pretty good guys protecting Marshall. Even though Shamire Devine graduates, the entire left side -- tackle Jahaziel Lee, guard Parker Braun, and center Kenny Cooper will be back. Johnson likes the strength in numbers across the O-Line.
"We have pretty good depth there," he said. "I think we have 15 offensive linemen on scholarship, or 16. So we'll kind of sort it and try to get our best seven or eight in the position where they can play."
The Jackets also are hoping to activate OL Jack DeFoor, a transfer from Ole Miss, and get redshirt senior Andrew Marshall back from injury for the start of fall camp -- he won't participate in the spring.
Of course, the biggest change is the new-look defense of new defensive coordinator Nate Woody.
It's an attack-first philosophy, which wreaked all kinds of havoc in the Sun Belt Conference, for Appalachian State, leading the conference three of the last four years and was among the best in FCS. Woody's system has created visions of quarterbacks and running backs strewn all over the field in its wake on The Flats for Jacket defenders.
"Anytime there's change it's always exciting," said Johnson.
The Jackets will look to replace key defensive ends KeShun Freeman, a four-year starter, and Antonio Simmons, the Jackets' leader in tackles for loss (8.0), sacks (5.5) and quarterback hurries (5.0) and who put on an amazing show on Pro Day, both of whom graduated.
One of the key pieces up front this year will be rising redshirt senior Desmond Branch. He can't wait to get after it.
"I'm looking forward to adapting to this new system Coach Woody has in and hopefully hitting the ground running," said Branch, who had 3.5 TFLs, good for minus-18 yards in losses. "I'm really excited. I want to get out there and see it for myself and see how well I fit in this scheme. This spring is special for me because I feel like I fit in better with this system than the previous system.
"The philosophy -- `Just go! If you can beat `em, beat `em.' I feel like that plays into my strengths very well," he added. "(New Defensive Line) Coach (Jerome) Riase, the way he's describing every position, it's a dream situation I would be in. I feel like this is a perfect situation for me. I'm expecting big things."
The Jackets will be breaking in pretty much a new secondary -- only senior free safety A.J. Gray returns from last year's starting secondary, but Lance Austin, who started his final two years at corner, before graduating, believes the guys coming back can fill the void just fine.
"`K.O,' (redshirt freshman safety Kaleb Oliver)' he's good. He played last year. He got it and (sophomore DB) Tariq (Carpenter) definitely got it," said Austin. "Guys like Ajani (Kerr) got to see it. I feel like they're going to be special. I feel like they've got a lot to show, a lot to prove. It's a hungry, young secondary coming back."
Rising senior co-captain Brant Mitchell (51 tackles, 33 solo, 1.5 for loss) leads a solid linebacking corps, with fellow starter, and leading tackler from last year, Victor Alexander (60 stops, 41 solo, 2 TFLs).
Branch believes there's plenty of upperclass leadership. He's determined to do his part.
"If someone needs help, I can lend an ear and try to help them out in any way possible," he said. "It's just really consistency and trying to adapt to the system as fast as possible so I can help whoever hasn't adapted as fast, get acclimated to the system better. Hopefully we can hit the ground running real soon."
Marshall is very intrigued by the prospects of facing this new-look, attack-first defense during the spring.
"I'm looking forward to it, see what they have in store," he said. "Some of the defensive guys have been talking trash, but we're going to see what happens this spring."
Special teams will be a work in progress, as kicker Shawn Davis, won't participate in the spring, as he recovers from a minor injury -- Johnson expects he'll be ready for fall camp -- and punter sophomore Pressley Harvin III, who earned a spot on last year's Ray Guy Award list (50 punts, 2,205 yards, 44.1 yards per attempt, 13 traveling over 50 yards, 16 landing inside the 20), is ready to begin booming the ball again in the spring.