How far can Georgia Tech ride ‘new energy’ and frustration from 2017?

Last year, Georgia Tech players were motivated to break the team’s cycle of following strong seasons with disappointing ones. That plan didn’t work out so well, as the Yellow Jackets fell from 9-4 in 2016 to 5-6 in 2017.

On the plus side for 2018, that sort of underachievement does have a way of serving as a catalyst for improvement.

“It definitely feels different,” All-ACC guard Parker Braun said at the team’s media day Thursday. “There’s just a new energy as you walk through the locker room. I think everybody’s a little bit pissed off about the way last year went, and so we’re all kind of rededicated for this year and that makes me excited.”

In case anyone needs a refresher on last year, the Jackets led by two scores against Tennessee, Miami, Virginia and Duke and lost all four games. Worse, they held those double-digit leads against the Volunteers, Hurricanes and Cavaliers in the second halves before succumbing in the final minutes.

The Jackets were insufficient when it came to building on leads on offense and protecting leads on defense (particularly at the ends of both halves).

“I think that hurt more than anything with us,” linebacker Victor Alexander said. “Just to know how close that was for us.”

The details seem seared into coach Paul Johnson’s memory. At the media day, he didn’t need prompting to revisit the season-ending loss to Georgia at Bobby Dodd Stadium, a 38-7 loss.

“We take the ball and run out eight minutes in the second quarter (actually, 6:17) and score to make it 14-7 at half, but with less than a minute to go, they come back and score right before half and take the momentum,” Johnson said. “Those things just take you out of games.”

August 2, 2018 Atlanta - Georgia Tech offensive lineman Parker Braun speaks to members of the press during a Georgia Tech Football Media Day at the Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday, August 2, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Learning to function better in those situations will undoubtedly be an objective as Tech’s preseason camp gets underway. Monday was the team’s third day of practice. Johnson called it a matter of doing a better job of coaching and playing.

“We’ve got to find a way to play better in the last two minutes and we’ve got to have a system for the last minute or the last two minutes of the game,” he said.

All-ACC B-back KirVonte Benson said that not making a bowl game was all the motivation that the team needed.

“That’s actually one of the main goals, not to end 5-6, but our goal is to go undefeated,” he said. “If not, we’re going to go to a bowl game regardless. That’s kind of how we’re going to play it out.”

Tech players do not typically vocalize ambitions as high as an undefeated season – the team’s goals generally include winning the ACC Coastal to play for the league championship and going undefeated at home. Still, Johnson shared the same objective Benson, if worded differently.

“Certainly, I go into every year thinking that we have a chance to win all our games, and our goal is to win the Coastal Division and the ACC and do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t see any reason we can’t do that if everything comes together and we stay healthy and play.”

Georgia Tech running back KirVonte Benson speaks to members of the media during a Georgia Tech Football Media Day at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday, August 2, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Johnson is not one for preseason hype and chatter about having gone through the toughest offseason ever and improved locker-room chemistry. Now in his 40th season of coaching, he has heard it all and knows that every team in the country is repeating the same talking points.

Time will tell if that fire can create results. In Tech’s preseason, special-teams play, particularly punt and kick return, will get a close look. So will the development of depth at wide receiver. A young secondary has to improve quickly.

Still, having a tangible source of motivation and more reasons to be excited about playing (new locker room, Adidas apparel) have to count for something. For a team that was agonizingly close to winning the ACC Coastal (wins over Miami and Virginia would have done it), perhaps it can provide enough of a boost for the Jackets to push through the cauldron of August practice and maximize their opportunities against a brutal schedule.

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Not one for superlatives, Braun said that he was the more excited for this camp than his previous two.

“I don’t know what you’d call it, but I just feel like we haven’t been living up to our potential as a team,” he said. “I feel like, with the athletes we have, we can be a lot more successful than what we’ve been last year. I see untapped potential, and that makes me really excited.”

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