March 29, 2010

Georgia Tech aims to build stiffer defense

Georgia Tech had such a potent offense last season that even a mediocre defense couldn't stop the Yellow Jackets from winning the ACC title and reaching the Orange Bowl.

That offense could take a small step back now that running back Jonathan Dwyer and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas have chosen to forgo their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft. Thus, the Yellow Jackets know they must take a giant step forward on defense.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson made the bold decision to fire defensive coordinator Dave Wommack even after a BCS appearance. The new coordinator is former Virginia coach Al Groh, who has the tough task of improving a defense that lost ACC defensive player of the year and likely first-round pick Derrick Morgan. Groh plans to scrap Georgia Tech's 4-3 defense in favor of a 3-4 alignment.

Here's a look at how the Yellow Jackets stack up as they head into spring practice.

GEORGIA TECH AT-A-GLANCE
Quarterback Josh Nesbitt returns to lead
Paul Johnson's triple-option attack.
THE BASICS
COACH: Paul Johnson
LAST SEASON: 11-3 overall, 7-1 in the ACC. Won the ACC title. Lost 24-14 to Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
SPRING DATES: March 29-April 24
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
OFFENSE (6): RB Anthony Allen, T Austin Barrick, C Sean Bedford, RB Roddy Jones, WR Tyler Melton, QB Josh Nesbitt.
DEFENSE (8): T Ben Anderson, CB Mario Butler, FS Mario Edwards, E Anthony Egbuniwe, LB Brad Jefferson, LB Steven Sylvester, CB Jerrard Tarrant, T Logan Walls.
SPECIAL TEAMS (2): P Chandler Anderson, K Scott Blair.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Consider it a testament to Georgia Tech's depth at running back that we consider this position the Yellow Jackets' biggest strength even though they must replace Jonathan Dwyer, who rushed for 1,395 yards in each of the past two seasons. Allen rushed for 618 yards and six touchdowns on just 64 carries last season, while Jones has run for a total of 1,035 yards over the past two seasons. Georgia Tech ranked 88th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last season, but the Yellow Jackets should have a much stronger secondary this season since they return all the cornerbacks who earned significant playing time a year ago. Nesbitt gives Georgia Tech a quarterback whose physical style makes him an ideal fit for the option attack, though the Yellow Jackets don't have an experienced backup now that Jaybo Shaw has transferred to FCS member Georgia Southern.

POSITIONS OF NEED

Demaryius Thomas caught 46 passes for Georgia Tech last season; the team's second-leading receiver had just eight receptions. Those numbers underscore the weakness of the receiving corps now that Thomas has moved on to the NFL. Stephen Hill and Tyler Melton are the only receivers with any kind of experience. Georgia Tech also has reason to worry about its lack of depth at defensive tackle.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

NT T.J. Barnes: Although he struggled with his technique as a redshirt freshman last season, Barnes should thrive under new defensive coordinator Al Groh. Barnes, a 6-foot-7, 341-pounder, has the size to develop into an ideal run-stuffing nose tackle in Groh's 3-4 alignment.

WR Stephen Hill: Georgia Tech probably won't focus on one receiver quite as much as it did last season, but somebody has to emerge as Nesbitt's favorite target now that Thomas is gone. We'll cast a vote for Hill, a sophomore whose 6-4 frame could allow him to develop into a physical deep threat who also can help out with downfield blocking.

RB Chris Jackson: Jackson, a sophomore transfer from Alabama, is versatile enough to carry the ball or catch it out of the backfield. Although he is listed as a running back, don't be surprised if Jackson plays a prominent role in Tech's passing attack. Jackson rushed for five touchdowns and also caught 76 passes for 1,470 yards and 23 scores his senior year at Henry County High School in McDonough, Ga.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

DE Robert Hall: After suffering a knee injury against Miami in mid-September, Hall sat out the rest of the 2009 season. Hall probably will be limited in spring practice as he recovers from the knee injury, but he needs to have a solid preseason to ward off challenges for playing time from Izaan Cross and Emmanuel Dieke.

THE BUZZ

The changes on defense could garner much of the attention this spring, but the Yellow Jackets also have plenty of work to do on offense as they attempt to find Nesbitt's eventual successor. Nesbitt won't participate in spring practice as he recovers from ankle surgery, so Tech's coaches will spend these next few weeks trying to settle on his top backup. The job of backup quarterback is particularly important at Georgia Tech because Nesbitt is such a physical player and has such a demanding role that he may have trouble staying healthy all season. The three top contenders are sophomore Tevin Washington and redshirt freshmen Jordan Luallen and David Sims. Washington has the most experience of the three, Sims may be the best athlete and Luallen is perhaps the most polished contender.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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