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Georgia Tech looking to answer questions on defense
Paul Johnson
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson addresses the media during ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina in July. Johnson announced his retirement Wednesday afternoon. - photo courtesy of Associated Press

By Stan Awtry

ATLANTA -- The key players on the Georgia Tech football team are ready forget the lackluster 2017 season that produced a disappointing bowl-free 5-6 record. They’re ready for a dose of amnesia and a clean slate. 

“Last season was last season,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall. “This is probably the only sport that you really get to start over completely. Everyone’s record is 0-0. Going into Sept. 1 (the opener at home against Alcorn State), we know that’s a game we get to start over with, so we’re going to take it one game at a time and then work from there.”

The Yellow Jackets went through an uneven season in 2017. They blew a big lead against Tennessee in the opener and lost in overtime to the Vols in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. They wasted other opportunities against Miami and Virginia and were beaten soundly by Clemson, Duke and Georgia. 

“It’s frustrating,” admitted linebacker Brant Mitchell. “My freshman year when we had the 3-9 season, it was like that then, too. We were one possession here, one possession there, one stop, one missed tackle away from having a successful season and going to a really good bowl game.”

The 2017 season began trending the wrong direction at Miami. The Yellow Jackets had won three straight and were leading the Hurricanes 24-22 when Miami converted a miraculous fourth-and-10 play to keep its hopes alive. The last-minute, 15-play drive was capped with the winning field goal with four seconds left. 

“We have them fourth down with a minute to go and they throw a ball into double coverage, our safety mistimes, the ball hits our corner in the helmet and their guy catches it laying on his back,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Well, you can say that’s skill level. I say that’s luck. So, if the ball hits our guy in the helmet and bounces the other way, who knows, maybe we’re in Charlotte instead of Miami.” 

Johnson walked that back a tad, explaining he didn’t want to disparage Miami, which won the Coastal Division last season. However … 

“You can never gauge. It changes the whole thing,” he said. “I want to clarify, I’m not taking anything away from Miami; they had a great year. I’m just saying that’s the way games kind of go. There’s a really razor thin margin for most teams between winning and losing. There are very few teams who can trot out and win the game without their ‘A’ Game. There are a few, but very few.”

Jaquan Henderson
Jaquan Henderson says his confidence is through the roof in a simplified defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Nate Woody. - photo by Anthony Banks

This year’s team returns nine offensive starters, including everyone on the offensive line, including All-ACC selection Parker Braun at right guard. The Yellow Jackets, led by Marshall, B-back KirVonte Benson and a deep group of game-breaking A-backs, should be able to score plenty of points. Marshall and Benson both rushed for 1,000 yards in 2017. 

The question is on defense, where new defensive coordinator Nate Woody is starting from scratch. He has installed a new 3-4 defense and spent the spring trying to plug guys in the right spots. There are pieces up front and at linebacker, especially Mitchell and sophomore Bruce Jordan-Swilling. Former Newton star Jaquan Henderson will look to figure into the mix as well, providing young talent, but the entire secondary is gone. 

The toughest blow may have come when veteran safety A.J. Gray, a potential All-ACC player, had to walk away from the sport because of a heart condition. 

“I felt we needed a shake-up on defense a little bit,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be more aggressive and simpler so that the guys could utilize their speed and quickness and could play fast. I think it’s important no matter what you do to be able to play fast and hopefully he will bring that.”

Senior linebacker Brant Mitchell said he’s looking to playing under the fresh scheme.

“We’re really excited about it,” he said. “The guys are extremely energetic, very excited, and guys are buying in. We believe in it. We’ve been introduced to it. Now it’s time to start translating the things that we’ve learned from past defenses and bringing it over to what we’re running now.”

The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish third in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Clemson was the overwhelming pick to win the conference again. 

“We’ll see when we starting playing,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I really believe if we stay healthy, we’ve got a chance to have a pretty good team.”