THE FLATS -
As Georgia Tech football headed into its first days of 2017 fall camp, the student-athletes were okay with the realization that the 2017 season probably was going to be different from 2016.
Last year's 9-4 season, which ended with a four-game winning streak, six wins in the final seven games, and victories at Georgia and over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl, is but a memory -- albeit still a quite pleasant one.
What matters now is making sure that the afterglow of 2016 doesn’t turn into the kind of radioactive disappointment that followed 2014. To that end, they are doing everything in their power to make sure 2015 is buried forever.
“I think that two years ago was a little bit of an enigma,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “Anybody who was paying attention realized all the injuries we had, it was just kind of a freak deal. You have those sometimes.
“I tell our team, it’s not what you want to do. It’s what you’re willing to sacrifice to do and what kind of commitment you have and each team is different,” Johnson added. “What are you willing to give up to get where you want to be? Are you willing to put some of the side stuff away until you get through playing? Are you willing to come to practice every day and show up and work hard? Are you willing to do whatever the team needs you to do?”
For redshirt junior quarterback Matthew Jordan, the answers to those questions are: anything, yes, yes and yes.
“Nobody wants to go back to 3-9. That’s the worst season I’ve ever had. Nobody wants to be there again,” said Jordan, the front-runner to replace three-year starter Justin Thomas at quarterback, who showed his commitment to the team in the way he rehabbed from a foot injury sustained in the spring to be ready for the start of camp. “After a 3-9 season, everybody was (ticked) off because we only won three games. It wasn’t a good time around here.”
The mood around campus is more pleasant this August. Gone is the anger and vitriol that met August of ‘16, replaced with determination and positive energy to build on last season and create some consistency.
“That’s one thing we discussed as a team. In the past, every time we had a good season, the next season wasn’t as good. We’re trying to break that cycle,” said senior defensive end and soon-to-be four-year starter KeShun Freeman. “So this offseason, everything we did was very intentional. We made sure that everyone was going the extra mile so we could have a better season. Each guy is motivated and knows that you have to do a little bit more to get the extra. We’re excited.”
That excitement was obvious during summer conditioning with director of player development John Sisk.
“I feel like this summer has been the hardest summer I’ve ever been through,” said redshirt junior A-back Qua Searcy, who bookended last season with a key fourth-down catch on the game-winning touchdown drive in Dublin, Ireland against Boston College in the opener and the game-winning score in Athens against Georgia in the regular-season finale. “We’re trying to build on what we’ve already started and not just have one good year then the next year slack a little bit. We want it to be a consistent thing.”
That motivation has been player-driven. A potential glut of leadership is always good to have but was something lacking a couple of years ago.
“We didn’t have that good leadership in the 3-9 season, obviously,” said junior linebacker Brant Mitchell, whose final-play interception sealed last year's Georgia win. “If you don’t have that, it’s not a player-led team, you’re not going to be that successful. That was the biggest difference between that season and last season.”
“We definitely have more vocal leaders,” said redshirt senior defensive back Corey Griffin, the Jackets’ leader in tackles (82) and solo tackles (62) last season. “(The 3-9 team) didn’t really have any vocal leaders at the time. We were pretty much coach-driven. This year we’re a lot more player-driven. Going off of that is definitely a plus. We’re coming off a four-game win streak and we know what’s at stake.To the team, it’s pretty much self-explanatory what we have going on.”
Getting up for last season was relatively easy, as there was plenty of animosity already built in.
“Honestly, coming off of a three-win season, we wanted revenge from a lot of the teams that we played and we were playing with a chip on our shoulder,” said Mitchell. “Coming off last season, obviously, it was a good season but we can always do better. We’ve still got a lot of things to work on. We’re just going to use that as fuel to do better than we did.”
The ‘16 Jackets avenged losses to Duke, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia in their season-closing run. This season they’ll look to end losing streaks against Pittsburgh (two games) and North Carolina (three games) in back-to-back weeks (Sept. 23 and 30 at Bobby Dodd Stadium), reverse the series against Clemson (four losses in the last five, all by at least 16 points), as well as beat Georgia in consecutive games and win against them at home for the first time in the Paul Johnson era.
They’ll be on the other side of the revenge coin in several cases, but this year’s squad is cognizant of the importance of putting together another high-win total and are confident they can get it done.
“Last time we had a good season, we went 3-9 (the next year). So we have more of a chip on our shoulder coming into this season,” said senior defensive back Lance Austin, whose three interceptions tied for the team lead with twin brother, Lawrence, as season ago. “We haven’t set goals but you always want to go back to the ACC Championship.”
“I think this year is a lot different. Last season, coming off the 3-9 year we really had the focus of ‘We have to get back on top and do what we have to do.’ This year’s focus is ‘We’re there and we have to keep pushing to get a little bit further,’” said senior offensive lineman Andrew Marshall, who was academic all-ACC in '16 and was crucial up front, manning both tackle spots in his 11 games played (nine starts). “We want to get back in the ACC Championship Game. We didn’t get there last year, so we weren’t quite where we wanted to be. We did lot better than 3-9 but we still have a lot to go. So it’s just this year is building upon that and proving even more.
“I think, too, you believe in yourself and you know you can do it, whereas the year we were 3-9, we struggled,” Marshall added. “Last year, we were 9-4 and we showed ourselves that we can bounce back and do well. But we still have to keep pushing to get better. So going into this year, that’s what we’re trying to do. I mean nine wins is great but we want to keep going and we want to get to the ACC Championship. That’s where you want to be every year as an ACC team.”
Enthusiasm and desire don’t appear to be issues for this year’s squad.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” said junior quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who was spectacular in the spring game and will join redshirt freshmen Jay Jones and