The secret to Georgia Tech’s success this season may turn out to be fairly bland. The Yellow Jackets aren’t winning with high-tech cleats or because of a dramatic change in diet.
Tech’s rise from a team expected to be a Coastal Division also-ran in the ACC to the No. 22 team in the country has, perhaps to a large degree, had its foundation in the hours players have invested practicing at Alexander-Rose Bowl Field and inside the Brock Football Facility.
“These kids, they work hard,” coach Paul Johnson said. “They go out there, they’ve kind of learned how to, for the most part, work hard and have fun at the same time. I think it’s important that you’re able to do that.”
Particularly given the physical nature of Tech’s practices, where the team is in full pads Tuesdays and Wednesdays and running full-speed contact drills, the effort that the Jackets are giving Johnson isn’t necessarily a given. In past seasons, Johnson had sometimes commented on how practices dragged, lacked energy or were merely “OK.” The less-than-satisfying results have followed. Such observations this season have been few.
“This is a great group of kids,” Johnson said. “They have been easy to coach because they’ve worked really hard.”
With a team that was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division and had new starters and young players across the depth chart, Tech broke a five-year losing streak to Miami and a four-year streak to Virginia Tech and goes into Saturday’s game against No. 19 Clemson with an offense ranked No. 4 in the country in points per possession (3.38, according to fbsdrivestats.com) and an improving defense. By beating the Tigers, Tech would celebrate its ninth win of the season, the most since the 2009 ACC championship season.
“I feel like on the defensive side, we just have a good (practice) mentality,” defensive tackle Adam Gotsis said. “I’m not saying we didn’t back then (in previous seasons), but we’ve got a good mentality. Everybody’s there for the right reason. We feel like we’ve become a team through practice.”
On Tuesday, Gotsis mentioned that “we put in some new stuff” for the Clemson game. That process asks for attention to detail and a willingness to test it out in conditions as close as possible to game speed. It asks for effort from the scout team and the defense itself in order to develop familiarity and trust in teammates to complete their assignment on a play.
“If you go into a game and you’re trusting everyone around you, you can just do your job and not have to worry,” Gotsis said. “That’s a good feeling.”
Johnson spoke with admiration for his team’s attitude. He said he sees players not merely trying to get through the grind of practice, but to use it to actually improve.
“Nobody’s complaining about being sore or nobody’s complaining about my leg hurts or my shoulder hurts or my legs hurt or can I sit out this drill, that kind of thing,” he said. “Whatever you ask them to do, they just go do it, as hard as they can.”
Among seniors, right guard Shaquille Mason and linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, both captains, and others like B-backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days, players fed up with close calls and desiring to leave a lasting mark in their final season, have helped establish the culture. They will be honored Saturday on Senior Day.
Sophomore linebacker P.J. Davis also was cited as another player who tries to pick up teammates. As a captain, Nealy said that his goal is “to lead ’em to a great season, one that they can definitely, when they look back, they can remember, 2014 season, boy, we had one (heck) of a year. That’s all I’m trying to leave.”
Etc.: Nose tackle Shawn Green’s status for Saturday’s game is still up in the air after suffering a knee injury in a win over N.C. State on Saturday. Johnson deemed him “questionable” following the Jackets’ Wednesday practice.
The team will issue an official injury report Thursday afternoon on Green’s potential availability to play the Tigers. Green has started all 10 games this season and, often double-teamed, has 18 tackles.