Georgia Tech will take its first on-field steps away from the 3-9 disaster of 2015 on Monday, when it begins the first of four weeks of spring practice.
There are the typical objectives — teaching freshmen the offensive and defensive schemes, trying to settle position battles and staying healthy. Far more than the previous 18 spring practices, which all followed bowl seasons, and certainly more than last year’s spring, which followed an Orange Bowl victory, these 15 practice sessions will have an added priority.
“I’m always usually pretty highly motivated when we play,” coach Paul Johnson said. “But certainly I’m anxious to get started. You want to get that taste out of your mouth.”
Tech’s spring will conclude with its spring game, which will return to a Saturday date for the first time since 2011, on April 23. In the interim, here are five objectives the Yellow Jackets will have.
Continue Jordan’s development
Backup quarterback Matthew Jordan’s hold on the No. 2 spot behind Justin Thomas strengthened when Christian Campbell, who redshirted last season and was to compete with Jordan, moved to safety about a month ago. Johnson said Campbell was anxious to get on the field and, recognizing Jordan’s advantage at quarterback for the backup spot, requested the move to improve his chances of playing this fall. Campbell also broke his hand in the offseason, which facilitated the decision.
Jordan will likely stand to benefit from extra repetitions and more attention with one fewer player in the position group (capable walk-on Chase Martenson is the No. 3), which will be critical. Thomas is not invincible — Johnson said he’ll practice again in a non-contact jersey — and, further, is a senior. To the degree that his appearance in last November’s Miami game accurately depicts his development, Jordan is tough and can move the offense, but needs to improve his ball security and decision-making in the option.
Acclimate January enrollees
Two early-enrollee freshmen and a junior-college transfer joined the team in January and all have a shot at contributing in the fall, starting with defensive end Desmond Branch. Coming from a Texas junior college after redshirting his freshman year at New Mexico, Branch caught Johnson’s attention during the team’s offseason workouts that ended two weeks ago.
“He’s looked really good in the drills,” Johnson said. “I’m anxious to watch him play.”
Freshman B-back Dedrick Mills will join a crowded but inexperienced competition at his position. Freshman linebacker Emanuel Bridges can challenge at his group, where there are no obvious candidates after P.J. Davis, Brant Mitchell and Victor Alexander.
“(Bridges) and Derick both have been impressive in drills,” Johnson said. “They’ve looked good.”
Find a new secondary
The secondary is open after the graduation of starting safeties Jamal Golden and Demond Smith and cornerbacks Chris Milton and D.J. White. The quartet takes 131 career starts with them. At safety, A.J. Gray appears to be a star in the making. Corey Griffin, Shaun Kagawa and Lawrence Austin will compete there, as will Campbell and Jalen Johnson, who has returned from a season at wide receiver.
At cornerback, Step Durham and Lance Austin have the most experience, but Johnson is hopeful about Lamont Simmons (sat out last year after transferring from Southern Cal) and redshirt freshmen Meiko Dotson and Dorian Walker. Johnson said that Walker has “got a chance to be really good.”
This could be an intriguing competition.
“The ones who sat out may be the ones playing,” Johnson said.
Improve pass protection
In January, Johnson said that pass protection would be his No. 1 priority going into spring practice. Joining offensive line coach Mike Sewak, new line coach Ron West could help with that, both in giving the line an extra set of eyes and in having different schemes and techniques to teach.
The line in particular and the entire protection in general was often untrustworthy on pass plays, a major factor in Thomas’ completion percentage dropping from 51.3 percent in 2014 to 41.7 percent last season.
“We’re going to look at some things,” Johnson said. “We’ve always had different protections, but we just haven’t run much in the games.”
Get freshmen ready
The Jackets are young, with only 13 rising scholarship seniors. Position groups across the depth chart are stocked with potential but short on experience, particularly A-back, B-back, wide receiver, cornerback and safety.
The spring will be important for redshirt freshmen such as A-back Omahri Jarrett, B-back KirVonte Benson, wide receivers Harland Howell and Christian Philpott and defensive tackles Scott Morgan and Brentavious Glanton.
In their first extended opportunity to learn their respective schemes after playing scout team in the fall, they have the chance to move up the depth chart.