5 things to watch in Georgia Tech’s preseason

Georgia Tech White Team quarterback Jay Jones (13) runs during 2017 Georgia Tech spring game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Friday, April 21, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A highly anticipated season will get its preseason start Aug. 4, when Georgia Tech will conduct its first camp practice.

Sixteen returning starters and an incoming class that appears particularly strong on defense are reasons for hope for the Yellow Jackets, who were picked to finish third in the ACC Coastal Division in a media poll and are seen as a dark-horse candidate to make it to the conference championship. As usual, there are concerns and questions to be answered as the Jackets get ready for the season, starting with Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game Sept. 4 at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Here are five:

Improvement of the defense

A solid four-game finish to the 2016 season led to a different way of leading spring practice for defensive coordinator Ted Roof. After cutting down the playbook and concentrating only on calls that his players felt comfortable and confident to execute, Roof slowed down his teaching pace in the spring, going more in-depth on the material.

In an ideal world for the Jackets, the less-is-more approach will help solve one of the bigger concerns going into the season, the four-man pass rush. Tech ranked 114th in the country in sacks per game last year, at 1.39, although the rate picked up at the end, with 10 sacks in the final four games.

The pressure will be on defensive ends KeShun Freeman, Antonio Simmons and Anree Saint-Amour to continue their development as edge rushers.

Which freshmen will emerge?

Last year, six freshmen showed enough in preseason camp to merit skipping their redshirt season, a group that included Dedrick Mills and three offensive linemen who started at least one game, guard Parker Braun, center Kenny Cooper and offensive tackle Jahaziel Lee.

It isn’t always the highest-rated recruits who emerge in the preseason. Sometimes, it’s been some of the last players invited to join the incoming class, such as linebacker P.J. Davis in 2013 and wide receiver Brad Stewart in 2015.

Among the more likely freshmen to get onto the field this season — linebackers Bruce Jordan-Swilling and Jaquan Henderson, safety Kaleb Oliver, cornerback Gentry Bonds and possibly one of the B-backs, Jerry Howard and Jordan Ponchez-Mason.

Coach Paul Johnson said that Henderson might be the fastest player on the team. All could contribute on special teams, the typical route for freshmen to get on the field. Defensive backs Jaytlin Askew and Tre Swilling are others.

With limited depth on the offensive line, offensive tackle Zach Quinney and Charlie Clark are possibilities to burn their redshirts.

Performance of freshman specialists

Two incoming freshmen almost certain to play are the specialists, kicker Brenton King and punter Pressley Harvin.

With kicker Harrison Butker and punter Ryan Rodwell graduated, King and Harvin are the strong favorites to win their respective jobs. However, they are unproven, and they’ll get a raucous welcome to college football — a matchup with Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in an expected sellout of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Lest fans forget, in his first two seasons, Butker was not the near-automatic kicker that he became as an upperclassman (21-for-32 on field-goal attempts as a freshman and sophomore), and it would be unreasonable to expect King to match Butker’s consistency of 2016.

Meanwhile, Harvin was highly touted in high school and could be an improvement on Rodwell, who was capable but inconsistent. But no one will know for sure until he takes the field, including Johnson, who rightly called the kicking game a concern.

How is Matthew Jordan doing?

In line to be Tech's starting quarterback, Matthew Jordan said he expected to be ready to go when camp opens after a foot injury in spring practice that required surgery. Johnson backed Jordan up at the ACC Kickoff media event. So long as he's ready to go, the next challenge will be making sure that he remains healthy and tuned up for the opener against Tennessee.

In early July, Jordan said his rehabilitation had reached a point where he could run full speed. Next steps were cutting and planting and throwing off his back (right) foot.

If Jordan stays in the lead, Tech will also have to ready the backup, either TaQuon Marshall, Lucas Johnson or Jay Jones.

Is Paul Johnson happy?

The Tech coach is famously difficult to please, but his 2014 team made an impression on him in the preseason with its practice habits and enthusiasm. It might not have been a coincidence that that team, picked fifth in the ACC Coastal Division, won the division and then the Orange Bowl.

The following year, despite (or perhaps because of) the Jackets having been anointed the preseason favorite to win the Coastal, Johnson was often grumpy and frequently dismissive of what he saw in practice. Although a calamitous slew of injuries contributed, the path to a 3-9 record may have begun in those August workouts.

Time will tell how the Jackets will handle this preseason and what sort of leadership develops in that crucible.

In Other News