MACON — In Paul Johnson’s mind, the myths and perceptions about his offense, coaching style and program were passé long before the 2014 season.
Yet going 11-3, winning the Orange Bowl, beating the big four rivals and getting two receivers chosen in the NFL draft may stave off the critical slings and arrows hurled at his Georgia Tech football program for quite a while.
Georgia Tech can’t win a bowl game because teams have a month to prepare for the option? The Jackets answered that with a resounding 49-34 win over Mississippi State. Their triple-option attack — as Johnson notes, the trip option is merely one play in Tech’s offensive catalog — amassed 452 yards rushing. In doing so, the Jackets more than tripled the Bulldogs’ average of 126 rushing yards allowed per game coming into the contest.
The Jackets and their run-heavy offense also had two receivers, DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller, drafted, running counter to the notion that Tech can’t attract or produce top-flight receivers. Dismissing that tale is of particular interest to Johnson.
“Oh, I think a lot of them got blown up,” the Jackets coach said of the criticisms and doubts over his program and offense. “Over the years, there have been a lot of those things have gotten blown up. We got two (receivers) drafted and we have five in the league, which if I’m not mistaken is the most of anyone in our league. That’s one I always get a chuckle out of.”
Johnson, who was speaking at June’s Pigskin Preview, and the Jackets were the ones laughing as 2014 ended. They beat Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami for the first time in the same season — after being picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
And then, there was the wild finish in the 30-24 win over Georgia to cap the regular season.
“We’re looking forward to trying to build on the momentum from last season,” Johnson said. “Certainly, this team will be new. We have a lot of moving pieces. We have a lot of people to replace.”
The Jackets got off to a 5-0 start last season, their best such opening to a season since winning the first six games of 2011. Yet their finish to the season reflected how much better the Jackets were at that point, according to Johnson.
“Early in the year, we weren’t a good football team,” he said. “We managed to win some games early. We found a way to win at Blacksburg. We got way up on Georgia Southern and went to sleep and, to their credit, they came back and we found a way to win. We weren’t a very good football team like we were toward the end of the year. Toward the end of the year, we were playing pretty good football.”
While the Jackets snapped losing streaks to Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia, they also had winning streaks against Duke and North Carolina come to an end. Georgia Tech under Johnson had not lost to Duke and lost only once to Carolina — that in Johnson’s first season. The two losses, a 31-25 setback at home to Duke and 48-43 war with UNC, left the Jackets at 5-2.
Johnson acknowledged that he should have taken quarterback Justin Thomas out of the Duke game earlier than he did. The Jackets trailed 31-12 when Johnson summoned backup quarterback Tim Byerly.
“He was hurt more than he let on, than we knew at halftime,” Johnson said of Thomas.
Yet after back-to-back tough losses, Johnson’s faith in the team and the team’s own self-confidence didn’t crumble. Instead, a 56-28 rout of Pittsburgh the week after the North Carolina loss started the Jackets on their run to the Orange Bowl.
“The team’s chemistry was never really challenged,” Johnson said. “For the first time since I’ve been at Georgia Tech, we lost to Duke. I look back on it, and it makes me sick. Then we go lose in a shootout in North Carolina. But our kids never wavered. It didn’t bother them.
“After North Carolina, we started playing better defensively a little bit, being more opportunistic, taking more chances and created some turnovers,” he added. “By the end of the year, we were pretty efficient offensively.”
The Jackets players alluded to their team chemistry and their trust in one another as a big reason for their monumental season.
“The offensive guys knew, when we needed a stop, defense was going to get a stop,” senior defensive tackle Adam Gotsis said. “We knew the offense was going to put up points. We just fed so well off each other. When the defense got turnovers, the offense was rolling. Defenses couldn’t keep up with our offense. That was the biggest thing. They would run over teams. They would literally run over teams.”
Offense in good hands
Johnson is about to embark on his 19th season as a head coach and eighth at the helm of the Jackets. The hand-wringing before last year was whether he could replace Vad Lee, the touted quarterback who spent one year running the offense before transferring to James Madison. Thomas proved to be more than capable, leading the Jackets to a school record in total points and an ACC-leading scoring average.
The swift sophomore ran for 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns and added 1,719 yards and 18 touchdowns passing. In the last seven games, Thomas directed a Jackets offense that topped 450 yards rushing three times and posted 399 yards on the ground against Georgia. Tech twice surpassed 600 total yards of offense, added two more games of at least 540 yards of offense and then chalked up at least 460 yards of offense in two others for good measure.
“Justin was a much better player at the end of the year than he was at the beginning of the year, for sure,” Johnson said.
There are areas in which Thomas can improve, said the coach — even for a quarterback who sparked an offense that led the nation in total rushing yards. Johnson wants to see more consistency out of his junior signal caller and wants him to get more comfortable with the system.
“I think he got there at the end,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, we can keep him healthy. I think he’ll continue to grow, and I look forward to him being better this year than he was a year ago.”
The Jackets return four of five starting offensive linemen from a year ago. But who will catch the ball and who else will run the ball are pending questions. Smelter and Waller combined for 61 receptions, 1,157 yards and 13 TDs. Tech’s returning receivers totaled eight catches for 61 yards and one score.
Thomas also will have a new B-back right behind him in Tech’s offense. Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days piled up 1,779 yards and 18 touchdowns, but they both graduated. Tech’s top two prospects, C.J. Leggett and Quaide Weimerskirch, were injured in spring practice. Leggett will miss the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Weimerskirch is out until at least September.
“That was the one thing that was a little disappointing in the spring,” Johnson said. “We got both of our young guys injured.”
In the final days of spring practice, Tech coaches moved Marcus Allen back to B-back — he had been at linebacker and wide receiver briefly — and Georgia Tech added transfer Patrick Skov, a graduate student, from Stanford.
“He had a good final week and a good spring game,” Johnson said of Allen. “We’ve got Patrick Skov, and we’ll give him an opportunity to see what he can do with Marcus.”
Incoming freshmen Mikell Lands-Davis, whom Johnson believes can play right away, and Marcus Marshall also are expected to get a crack at the position.
“We’ll see how it all unfolds,” Johnson said.
The Jackets lost A-backs Charles Perkins, B.J. Bostic, Deon Hill and Tony Zenon, and Johnson also dismissed Dennis Andrews earlier this summer. That leaves only the blazing-fast Broderick Snoddy, who broke his leg against Clemson and missed the final three games, and Isiah Willis, who played sparingly, as A-backs who had carries last season.
But the Jackets are bringing a big crop of freshmen A-backs and receivers, including some who were state track champs, led by receivers Christian Philpott and Harland Howell and slotbacks Ohmari Jarrett, Nathan Cottrell and TaQuon Marshall. The Jackets also signed Benedictine star receiver Brad Stewart.
Defensively, the Jackets return the vast majority of a unit that forced 29 turnovers. They also are expecting to get back defensive lineman Jabari Hunt-Days for his senior season after academics sidelined him last year. Ten of the top 12 tacklers from 2014 are returning.
Rough road back to Charlotte
The schedule doesn’t make for an easy return to the ACC championship game in Charlotte or another Big Six bowl. The Jackets have to travel to Notre Dame and host Florida State, which hasn’t lost to a conference opponent in 24 straight games. There are also the annual matchups with Clemson and Georgia, so Georgia Tech doesn’t lack for opportunities in 2015.
“Overall, we’ve got the toughest schedule since I’ve been at Georgia Tech,” Johnson said. “Nationally, I think it would be ranked in the top 10 or top 20.”
Winning big games last year, including a sweep of the big four and the Orange Bowl victory, has bolstered the mentality of a team already brimming with confidence for 2015.
“In those previous years, we came close,” senior offensive lineman Errin Joe said. “But we finished the job this year. And passing the ball, with two receivers getting drafted, that helps with recruiting as well. It lets us know we’re proving people wrong the right way.”