Georgia Tech will open its preseason Friday, the first practice for coach Paul Johnson’s 11th season and the school’s 126th. As always, there is plenty to do before the Yellow Jackets open their season against Alcorn State on Sept. 1 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Here are six priorities for Johnson, his staff and his team as they prepare for the season.
1. Determine a go-to wide receiver
With the graduation of Ricky Jeune, the Jackets must now find a replacement for the player who led Tech in receptions for each of the past three seasons. Jeune’s size, body control and hands gave quarterbacks Justin Thomas and TaQuon Marshall comfort in knowing he could bring in just about anything thrown in his vicinity.
Tech’s offense is heavily oriented to the run, but depends on big plays out of the passing game to take the pressure off the run game. Thus, Marshall could use a trusted target. Wideouts will also have to try to attain the high standard that Jeune set as a perimeter blocker in the running game.
The obvious candidate to lead the group is Brad Stewart, who has started the past two seasons, but whose reception total dropped to four last season from 19 in 2016 as the passing game declined for multiple reasons. The other likely possibility is Jalen Camp, expected to take the other starting wideout spot. Johnson said in the spring that Camp “has all the tools” to be a productive player but needed to be more consistent.
After Stewart and Camp, younger players will be vying to win jobs in the rotation – Stephen Dolphus, Jair Hawkins-Anderson and Adonicas Sanders all return, and will be joined by freshmen Malachi Carter and Pejé Harris.
2. Establish a starting offensive line (with backups)
There are a number of moving parts on the Tech offensive line as the preseason begins. Principally, center Kenny Cooper is returning from a foot injury suffered in spring practice. At the ACC Kickoff in mid-July, Johnson did not know with certainty when he would be available to start practicing and playing, though he said Cooper’s rehab was “ahead of schedule.”
That initiates a series of combinations for what the Tech line could look like for the opener and into the season. Cooper’s potential sub at center could be Jahaziel Lee, who is also a returning starter at left tackle. Will Bryan can play guard or tackle. Tackle Andrew Marshall is returning after missing last season with a foot injury.
Other challengers include Zach Quinney and Bailey Ivemeyer at tackle and Brad Morgan, Charlie Clark and Conner Hansen at guard. Typically, the goal out of the preseason is to emerge with starting five and a top seven, the latter of which provides the depth for a three-man rotation at both guard and tackle.
Identifying those seven, keeping them healthy and developing cohesion in practice will be paramount. With an inexperienced defense learning a new system, ball control figures to matter even more than normal, and that starts with the line.
Perhaps the only certainty at this point is All-ACC left guard Parker Braun.
3. Choose a kicker
Johnson gave a telling response to a question about Tech’s kicking competition at the ACC Kickoff. (A fitting locale for such a query.)
Johnson called it “wide open.” Brenton King, who took kickoffs and placekicks for the Jackets in the final seven games, would seem the leading candidate. King was 5-for-6 on field-goal attempts, but had only one touchback in 24 kickoffs, perhaps a residual effect from a groin injury suffered in the preseason. King took over for Shawn Davis, who tore his ACL against Miami, but has been cleared to return. Davis had eight touchbacks on 27 kickoffs.
They’re joined by freshman walk-ons Wesley Wells and Cliff Gandis. Certainly, the placekicking and kickoff jobs can be split.
Though the leading candidate would figure to be King, Johnson’s response would suggest that it’s hardly a given that he’ll get the job, especially on kickoffs. Field-goal range and kickoff distance and consistency likely will be under the microscope in August.
4. Set the starting lineup across the defense
When he addressed media at the end of spring practice, new defensive coordinator Nate Woody said the objective wasn’t to identify starters, but to set a two-deep depth chart. Starting jobs, he said, would be won in the preseason.
The depth chart in the media guide does identify seven starters, but there are four positions where the first-string spot was shared by two players. They were the Jack linebacker (Victor Alexander or Jaquan Henderson), inside linebacker (David Curry or Bruce Jordan-Swilling) and the two cornerback positions (Lamont Simmons or Jaytlin Askew at one, Ajani Kerr or Tre Swilling at the other).
Woody also said in the spring that he needs a playmaking nose tackle. Kyle Cerge-Henderson is the starter in the depth chart, with Brandon Adams and Chris Martin named as backups. It’s a position that Woody considers critical.
Woody also will get his first on-field look at what appears to be a talented group of incoming freshmen, including linebacker Justice Dingle and cornerback Jaylon King. (Defensive lineman T.K. Chimedza and linebackers Quez Jackson and Charlie Thomas were early enrollees.)
5. Continue teaching the defense
Woody has another objective for the preseason – to continue instructing players in the details of his 3-4 scheme. In the spring, Woody did not install the entire defense, so he’ll have to continue teaching where and how he wants players to line up and move on different calls against different formations and plays.
And he’ll have to start from the basics with the incoming freshmen.
To that end, it will be critical for Stinger linebacker Jalen Johnson to stay healthy, as he missed spring practice with an injury and will have to catch up in his learning of the defense. He is listed as the starter at his position.
6. Establish a plan for playing freshmen
A new NCAA rule that enables players to play up to four games in a season and still use it as a redshirt year has caused coaches to consider their usage of the roster in a different way. At the ACC Kickoff, Johnson said that “you kind of have to watch and see” to figure out how freshmen will be used. Typically, a handful of freshmen will make it clear in the preseason that they can help the team win that season and will play from the start.
The remainder of the freshmen are kept lower on the depth chart, continuing to practice with starters and being ready to play in case of injuries, or are designated for scout team, where it would be unlikely they would play that season. At least until this point.
But giving every freshman the chance to play four games could give coaches more players to use on special teams or in certain packages in limited amounts.
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