Rant Sports continues its 100 teams in 100 days countdown to the 2012 college football season with its preview of No. 40, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
The Yellow Jackets are hoping to string together a more consistent season than in 2011, when they started 6-0 before limping to an 8-5 finish. The team struggled across the board down the stretch: QB Tevin Washington didn’t have a touchdown pass in the last seven regular season games, and the defense allowed at least 30 points in each of the final four. Kicker Justin Moore was just 11 for 17 on field goals in 2011 – and he was still the team’s leading scorer, thanks to a school-record 56 PATs.
Georgia Tech will start the season with questions at critical spots, most glaringly at receiver, where there’s plenty of talent and size but zero experience.
Fifth-year head coach Paul Johnson has won eight or more games in three of his four seasons at the helm. Anything less would be a disappointment, but the team will have its work cut out for it to surpass that mark this season.
With Stephen Hill preparing to play on Sundays, Georgia Tech doesn’t have a single wide receiver on the roster with even a single catch at the college level. Sophomores Jeff Greene and Darren Waller and senior transfer Chris Jackson will all have a shot to emerge as the Yellow Jackets’ next star receiver. Greene played in 12 games last season as a true freshman but recorded no catches. Waller is a beast at 6’5″; physically, he fits the mold of recent GT receivers like Hill and Calvin Johnson. Jackson sat out last season after transferring from Alabama. He didn’t have any catches in Tuscaloosa either, but he’s been praised for his blocking and his toughness, and he’ll have a lot to prove in one short season.
Washington might not know who his main targets will be, but he has the quarterback spot locked down, at least in theory. A senior, Washington completed just 46.3% of his passes last season, for 1,652 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. His passing game was shaky, particularly in the second half of 2011, and in GT’s spread option offense, he demonstrated greater confidence in his feet than his arm – he was the fifth-leading rusher in the ACC in 2011, with 986 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Washington and running backs Orwin Smith and David Sims should have plenty of protection behind an O-line that returns all but one starter. Senior right guard Omoregie Uzzi is a two-time first-team All-ACC selection with 25 career starts under his belt; junior Will Jackson has 22 starts at left guard and sophomore Shaq Mason, Uzzi’s likely successor, played in 11 games as a true freshman.
The Yellow Jackets’ defensive linemen may not have the collective experience of their counterparts on offense, but what they do have is size: the projected starters are all over 280 lbs. They’ll need to play even bigger this year, though. Last season, they were one of the biggest D-lines in the ACC, but they yielded 4.5 yards per carry.
The team’s pass rush faded towards the end of the 2011 season, and defensive coordinator Al Groh is counting on junior linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu to revive it this year. An explosive pass rusher, he logged 59 tackles and 6 sacks in 2011. Quayshawn Nealy will step into the spot vacated by inside linebacker Julian Burnett, a 2011 All-ACC player who suffered a career-ending neck injury in the Sun Bowl.
The Georgia Tech secondary was a weak spot for the team in 2011, but it could be a strength this year. Senior cornerback Rod Sweeting recorded 56 tackles, 3 interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season and received All-ACC Honorable Mention. Junior corner Louis Young had 52 tackles; he started the first twelve games of the year but missed the bowl game due to suspension. In his absence, junior Jemea Thomas played very well and made a case to get much more playing time this year.
The safeties will be anchored by junior Isaiah Johnson, who had 78 tackles and 3 interceptions in 2011. The team has high hopes for sophomore Fred Holton as the other starter but he’s still a bit of an unknown; he stood out as a true freshman in 2010 but missed last season with an injured Achilles.
The Yellow Jackets jump right into the fire on 9/3 with their season opener at Virginia Tech before returning for a four-game home stretch that starts with the Presbyterian Blue Hose and ends with Miami. They have a tough nonconference date with BYU at home halfway through the season, and they also have to travel to Clemson, UNC, and Georgia. On the bright side, they don’t have NC State or Florida State on this year’s schedule.