Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
The season's first practice is still more than two weeks away, but football is in the air already and Georgia Tech buzzed the 2017 ACC Football Kickoff last Friday in Charlotte. The media polled at the event picked the Yellow Jackets to finish third in the ACC's Coastal Division.
Head coach Paul Johnson, senior defensive end KeShun Freeman and senior wide receiver Ricky Jeune believe that was a short sale by the media who tabbed Miami (1,065 points, 103 first-place votes) as the favorite in the Coastal. The Hurricanes were followed by Virginia Tech (932, 40), Georgia Tech (708, 9), Pitt (673, 7), North Carolina (606, 4), Duke (473, 4) and Virginia (219).
The Sept. 4 season opener against Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at Mercedes-Benz Stadium can't get here soon enough for a team that won its final four games and six of the last seven last season. The Jackets closed the impressive campaign at 9-4 after a win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
"We're really excited to have the opportunity to display our program on a national level," Johnson told the hundreds of media members assembled at the Westin Charlotte. "We return 16 starters from our team a year ago. I'm really proud of them and the way we finished the season. We're looking forward to building on that."
Freeman has a good feeling about a defense that returns eight starters, including the entire secondary.
"I'm very excited going into this season because I've seen my teammates do some great work in the offseason, whether it be in the weight room (or) on the field with conditioning," Freeman said. "We have a lot to add to last year . . ."
Senior Antonio Simmons is poised to replace defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong at the other end of the defensive line, opposite Freeman
"[Simmons] is a very talented player. He proved that last year with sacks, hurry-ups. We're like brothers and we prepare all the time with each other. We've been going to the indoor to work on hand speed, our feet . . . "
As one might have predicted, Johnson was asked about replacing graduated quarterback Justin Thomas, a three-year starter who is now with the NFL's New Orleans Saints.
The coach didn't sound worried, noting that fourth-year junior Matthew Jordan won the only game he has started, last season at Virginia Tech. Johnson suggested that there's plenty of depth at quarterback.
"If we've been doing our job as a coaching staff, then we've got guys that are ready to play," Johnson said. "A year ago Matthew Jordan had to go up to Blacksburg, which is a really tough place to play, and . . . he won the game.
"He had an injury and missed most of the spring so it gave some of our young guys [like] TaQuon Marshall a chance, [as well as] Jay Jones and Lucas Johnson, who are both redshirt freshmen who may actually be the most talented we've had at Georgia Tech since I've been there. I feel good about that position. It's Matthew's job to lose but I think we've got four guys that I could call a game for now."
Given that Tech has eight offensive starters back after losing Thomas, center Freddie Burden and tackle Eason Fromayan to graduation, that side of the ball is drawing attention.
Jeune was popular in Charlotte as much for his spiffy bow tie as for being Tech's leading receiver last season with 25 receptions for 427 yards and a score. He had no problems fighting off a query about playing wide receiver in the Jackets' run-heavy offense.
It's all good for him, junior wide receiver Brad Stewart and other wideouts because, as Jeune said, "In an offense like this you get a lot of one-on-one coverage and that's a receiver's dream."
On the other side, Tech's starting secondary of Lance Austin, Lawrence Austin, Corey Griffin, A.J. Gray and Step Durham is intact, and middle linebacker Brant Mitchell is joined by Terrell Lewis, Victor Alexander and David Curry -- all who both played quite a bit last season.
Up front, Freeman and Simmons are expected to work alongside junior tackles Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Desmond Branch with third-year sophomores Brandon Adams and Brentavious Glanton likely to help inside as well. Junior Anree Saint-Amour will offer aid on the edge.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof will lean on the experience of seniors who have experienced highs like Tech's 11-3 season in 2014 and lows like the 3-9 record suffered in 2015.
"We kind of keep that in the back of our mind," Freeman said. "As older people, we played on one of Coach Johnson's worst teams and one of his best teams. We use each season as an example of what could have happened, what has happened and what we can take into the future."
The Jackets know their future at running back. Sophomore B-back Dedrick Mills was named preseason all-ACC on Wednesday after leading Tech as a freshman with 771 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns (12 rushing, one receiving) in nine games.
If past history can be invoked, fans will fondly recall that the last time Tech entered the season with a new quarterback, it went quite well. That was 2014.
"It's very similar to three years and when Justin was first starting and he was surrounded by a bunch of guys who had experience and had played a lot of football," Johnson said. "For us, six offensive linemen [who had starts in `16] are back, all the running backs and leading receivers.
"He's going to be surrounded, whoever [the QB] is, by a group of players who've played a lot and that season worked out pretty good. We ended up in the Orange Bowl and beat Mississippi State. So maybe, hopefully, we'll have another year like that."