Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Last season was nice but KeShun Freeman has visions of more for Georgia Tech. With Friday's open of fall football practice, he's not alone in his feelings about the Yellow Jackets.
There are high thoughts around Tech because 16 starters return from a 9-4 team that beat Georgia to close the regular season and then topped Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl and because those in the know appreciate this team's talent and the leadership emerging within the rank-and-file.
Sure, the Jackets lost starting quarterback Justin Thomas to graduation.
So? Ask KeShun.
He's Tech's only remaining starter from the 2014 team that topped Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl to finish 11-3 -- with Thomas as a first-year starter.
The key to that team was chemistry and Freeman feels this team has it. The senior defensive end has seen signs to suggest that in his last season on The Flats, these Jackets may match or surpass his fairly magical first season.
"We have a lot of guys stepping up as leaders in different places: the guy who speaks up, the guy who helps others, the guys who make everybody better every day," he said. "You'll see leadership in Corey Griffin, Ricky Jeune, Antonio Simmons.
"These are guys who are both vocal and helping everyone else get better every day . . . we have more guys willing to help each other."
This needs to be an organic evolution.
"We'll find out in the next four to five weeks," he said. "I think you can teach leadership skills, but you can't force people to be leaders -- not good ones . . . They just kind of rise to the top and guys follow them."
Johnson's not sure yet who will emerge atop the quarterback leaderboard, where junior (but already a graduate student) Matthew Jordan will try to fend off TaQuon Marshall and redshirt freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones.
But he knows that the importance of peer-to-peer accountability among players cannot be understated as a way to predict a team's success rate. He could try to anoint leaders but he won't. Johnson will let that water settle on its own rather than try to channel it.
"The team may have a whole different idea," the coach said. "A lot of times you can tell a lot about a team by the leaders. If you've got guys who are problems off the field and are distractions and they're the leaders, usually you've got problems . . .
"Justin Thomas was a leader and he never said a word. He just had that `it' factor. I never went to him and said you've got to be a leader."
The "it" factor is difficult to describe. But several Jackets apparently see it in some of their teammates.
"I would definitely say Lawrence [Austin], Corey Griffin and Antonio Simmons on the D-line," said senior defensive back Lance Austin, twin brother of Lawrence. "I feel like you kind of have it. When you practice what you preach and continue to build and do it consistently . . . that's how you become a leader."
Leaders come in styles. Somethings they talk, sometimes they don't.
This has happened before, zillions of times.
Back in 2014, the Jackets were moving on from quarterback Vad Lee. That wasn't good news, yet they had quite a few starters returning in other spots. That squad also came upon several solid leaders, some of whom were relative bit players in the grand scheme while on the field.
Guard Shaq Mason wasn't especially loud but he did his work on the way to All-America honors. He's won a Super Bowl, by the way, since leaving Tech and joining -- and starting for -- the Patriots.
Former A-back Charles Perkins wasn't a superstar in '14 but he did everything the right way and set a fine example.
On defense, linemen Adam Gotsis (now with the Denver Broncos) and Shawn Green were super steady, as were linebacker Quayshawn Nealy and defensive backs Chris Milton and D.J. White, all of whom ended up getting shots in the NFL.
Occasionally, a good team's best leader or leaders will be loud but that's not necessarily a norm. Mostly, they lead by example.
"That's an innate ability, and you can help them get there, but some guys just have it," Johnson said before citing Thomas as an example of a nearly-silent front man. "Then you've got guys who chirp all the time and nobody hears them."
Jordan doesn't hesitate to tab leaders on his side of the ball.
Freeman is not one to get up on a soap box and preach, yet he's been diligent in connecting with younger players with advice in everything from football to being homesick, to dining options to buying textbooks.
He's more the quiet, do-it type, who leads behind the scenes and works on matters that go beyond the field of play. At the same time, he notes other leadership styles.
"Ricky Jeune is a leader," Freeman said. "But he's probably going to demonstrate a way of doing something before saying anything. We have other guys who are more willing to say things. I've wanted to spend more time with my [younger] teammates."
Griffin, a fifth-year senior safety, is plenty vocal and comfortable in the role that he has seized.
"I came in [in 2013] and took on watching people. We really didn't have any vocal leaders . . . I saw that's what we really needed," he said. "Me, Lawrence and a couple other guys took on that role . . .
"I'm definitely comfortable with it because I know we have the athletes and leaders on this team to go to the championships -- the ACC Championship, the National Championship. It's just the willingness to bring it out of guys -- `You can do this, you can do that.' Being vocal brings that out of them."