What's a good place to start? How about at b-back and the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in 2008? Jonathan Dwyer was probably a little under-the-radar nationally to begin the season but it didn't take long before people could see that he having a breakout season. He actually was not bad at all as the backup to Tashard Choice in 2007. In '07 he chipped in nine touchdowns on 82 rushes for 436 yards (5.3 YPC). That's a touchdown every nine times he touched the ball. Last season he showed just what a player is capable of doing as the feature b-back in Coach Johnson's offense. Though he had only 31% of the carries for the team, there were many more big plays this season and many yards. The one highlight for the season that will stick with most fans was his 60-yard touchdown run (and subsequent 2-pt conversion) against Georgia on the first play of the second half (just after the broadcast threw up a graphic on the screen which stated "Where's the Sting?"), which ignited a huge GT streak-breaking comeback win over the dark side.
It is always worth another look:
Georgia Tech's rushing game is becoming a dynasty in the ACC. Dwyer's league leading rushing performance (season stats: 200 rushes for 1,419 yards and 12 TDs; 8 receptions for 209 yards and 1 TD) is on top of a couple of league leading efforts by Tashard Choice prior to Dwyer taking over. I suspect Dwyer will be the favorite to repeat that performance in 2009 and he's about the easiest bet in the country to retain his starting spot. So, no spring drama is expected at the top line of the depth chart at b-back.
The a-back position returns both starters from last season but there may actually be some drama this spring in terms of the guys fighting to keep those spots. First though let's look at the incumbents. Tech fans were very anxious this time last year to see just how this offense, and particular the new running back positions, would look. A common question was, "What does a prototypical b-back and a-back look like?" Dwyer answered half of that question and Roddy Jones answered the other half of it. They seem to be the perfect compliments to each other. Coaches mentioned how they wanted a-backs to be able to hit a "homerun" anytime he touched the ball and Roddy delivered. By the end of the year, he struck fear in opposing teams that could no longer try and key just on Dwyer to slow Tech down. Jones averaged a whopping 8.5 yards per carry on 81 attempts (723 yards) and contributed four touchdowns. He also had 8 receptions for 155 yards and another touchdown. Despite budding talent on the roster, Jones also seems a safe bet to be in the same position throughout spring.
When picturing the prototype for a-back, what fans did not picture was someone who looked like Lucas Cox. Prior to starting all 13 games last season, many looked at Cox as the guy who received a scholarship after transferring from Connecticut because his brother was a star on the team. Coach Chan Gailey promised him a scholarship in 2008 and Coach Johnson followed through and made good on that promise. The fact is - he earned every bit of that scholarship. But I don't think most people envisioned a 6'0", 240-pound bull-in-a-china-shop back as an a-back. The fact is, Cox is probably more of a b-back but as long as Dwyer was healthy, that spot was filled. The coaches, as they always promise to do, found a way to get the best players on the field. It may not be ideal but Lucas was as steady as they came last year. He also had a high 7.7 YPC on 26 carries (205 yards) and ran in three touchdowns. He caught 3 passes on the year for 57 yards. His performance would seem to indicate he was safe to keep his spot for next season, but as Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast my friend."
One of the biggest wild cards on the entire team next season and this spring is transfer running back Anthony Allen. Allen, formerly a standout for Louisville, was a starter and leading rusher for the Cardinals and he holds the Louisville single-game rushing record with 275 yards against Middle Tennessee on September 6th, 2007. He could end up like Choice, being one of the most significant transfers in the history of GT. There are certainly some huge expectations being placed on Allen. His size, speed and experience will allow coaches to use him at either back position. So, the coaches can try out a number of different scenarios in spring to see how to get the best three guys on the field at the same time. He also provides a great insurance policy in case of injury to Dwyer or in 2010, he could possibly take over the b-back position should Dwyer move on to the NFL. In the meantime, there will be at least four backs who are likely deserving of starting spots. The addition of Allen to this group will be one of the most anticipated stories of the coming spring practices. There is good reason to be excited.
What makes this group of backs even more interesting is that the four guys with proven experience are followed by a handful of younger guys just getting their feet wet in college football but with plenty of upside. Of the three backs in last year's class, only Richard Watson was not forced into some game action in 2008. Wright and Peeples took part in seven and eight games respectively last season but they only scratched the surface on what they'll be able to contribute long-term.
Embry Peeples got the first look of the freshmen backs in 2008. He lost his redshirt in game one. In the Mississippi State game, he led off the route with a 7-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. That was his only TD of the season and the 6-carry, 56-yard performance was his high watermark for the season. He hurt his ankle in the Duke game and missed the next five games. He had 11 carries before the injury and only 3 more for the rest of the season. So, he was either still slowed by the ankle or the coaches were more comfortable with other players at a crucial point in the schedule. In either case, they thought enough of him early on in the season, so there's no reason to think he won't be right there in the mix on the depth chart again in 2009. The early game experience should serve him well in off-season preparations as he'll have a good feel for the speed of the game.
Marcus Wright arrived on campus with the most hype of the backs in his class. He put up some gaudy numbers as a high school senior in Texas, including 45 touchdowns. He was also said to be one of the fastest players in the state. What was glaring though when he arrived on campus was his diminutive stature. He was tiny looking compared to guys on the roster and it seemed to show in his initial confidence level. He had the dropsies in early practices and was no match for hard-charging defenders trying to take down the quarterback. It looked like a redshirt season was needed and pretty much assured of happening. But then Peeples had the ankle injury and Wright was brought in to play in game six versus Gardner Webb. He carried the ball three times for eight yards and then sat the next game against Clemson. Though he blocking was getting better, he wasn't really needed much at a-back for the time being. By game eight (Virginia) though he supplanted Dwyer as the main kick returner opposite Roddy Jones. From that point on he returned nine kicks for a total of 200 yards. He caught a 47-yard pass in the LSU game and was spotted on film in several late games making some devastating blocks in relief duty as a back. As with Peeples, getting an early feel for the game should serve Wright well. He seems to have a future as a return guy but it's still too early to tell what he's going to contribute as a back. He came a long way in a short time in year one. Spring will be a good test for Marcus as he'll get plenty of looks.
The other back from the 2008 class is b-back Richard Watson. Unlike the a-back position, there was no urgent need to find players to fill out the depth chart at b-back. Tech coaches had the luxury of being able to redshirt Watson. Richard is a big, bruising back who'll be a better fit as a b-back than an a-back. He's a down-hill runner who racked up almost 3,700 yards in his final two seasons in high school. With Dwyer, Allen and Cox in the mix as big backs, it will be interesting to see this spring what kind of niche Watson can carve out early on in his career. It's possible he could come in for short yardage situations in an all big back package. At the least, he'll provide the coaches more depth and more options to work with. Coach Johnson must stay up late at nights thinking of the different combinations.
Quincy Kelly is another who could see action at the b-back position – in fact, he'll be again listed as the backup as Tech heads into spring. Being the backup for Dwyer though, he saw about as much work as the Maytag repairman. Kelly, who started his career at Tech as a linebacker, played sparingly last season also because he was diagnosed with a non-football medical condition. The condition will always be a concern for Kelly but he does plan to be back and in the mix this spring. He's a solidly built, hard-running back who specializes in short yardage situations and blocking. Last season he chipped in 14 carries for 42 yards (3.0 YPC).
Finally, rounding out the spring depth chart at running back is a collection of walk-ons with varying chances of getting serious looks in practice. Jamal Paige is an interesting player. He came in last year as a preferred walk-on, and as we've seen, the coaches brought in a very solid group in that class. Paige likewise held his own in practice and stood out on occasion. I could easily see him getting reps at practice and continuing to work his way up the depth chart.
Preston Lyons is a big back and transfer from Colgate. He sat out last year and will try and find a role on the team in 2009. Finally, Jim Henry, a former walk-on quarterback, is in line to get a look at a-back. It will be interesting to see what he brings to the table at that position this spring.
Current Depth Chart:
BB: Jonathan Dwyer, Richard Watson, Preston Lyons, Daniel Drummond
AB: Anthony Allen/Lucas Cox/Marcus Wright, Jamal Paige, Jemea Thomas
Review, Preview, and Predictions:
Let's start with the expectations for the running game. We're Tech people so let's talk some math before we get to the guessing. I've often read on the board where fans expect or want to see a 75/25 split in run/pass from this offense - history says, that's not happening. Last year's 80/20 split was the most attention the passing game has received in a Paul Johnson coached offense for the past five years (I did look any further back because I got the point!). From 2004 through 2007, Coach Johnson's Navy offense had the following splits in attempted plays (run%/pass%): 84/16, 82/18, 87/13, and 86/14. Even the 2008 version of Navy with his pupils running that offense saw an 88/12 split in Johnson's absence.
The other point that sticks out is that not only will the run/pass split not go the way some think or hope it will but the number of rushing attempts will likely spike upward a good bit in 2009. Tech's 49 carries per game (CPG) last year was also the lowest for Coach Johnson in the past five years. The reasons for that drop could be debated and whether that trend could continue to move away from his historical averages but I think the team being more familiar with the system will lead to numbers more in line with the Navy offense that were running the same system. His last four years at Navy looked like this in terms of CPG, beginning with 2004: 57, 56, 59, and 62. If you average CPG for all five seasons (56.7 CPG) and project Tech to play in 13 games, as they did last season, then you'll see an increase of about 100 more rushing attempts in 2009.
The final trend I'll look at based on Johnson's last five years is the tendencies in who'll do the running in his offense. Before getting focused on running backs, the quarterback is obviously an integral part of the triple option. In 2008 GT quarterbacks took 42% of the rushing attempts. That's in line with what Coach Johnson offenses have done previously. The prior four years looked like this: 46%, 38%, 39%, and a low of 34% in Johnson's final year at Navy. Jonathan Dwyer's 31% of the load was on the high side of carries for one of Paul's backs – QB or RB. No other back was a bigger part of the Navy offenses since 2005 when then-senior quarterback Lamar Owens had 213 of the team's 672 carries (32%). Owens now is in his second year of working at GT helping out coach quarterbacks. He's not listed as an official position coach, his title is Office Assistant, but you will often find him on the field at practice.
That brings me into what we should expect from Dwyer, the 2008 ACC player of the year, in 2009. The pre-spring talk of trying out a number of different combinations, including moving Jon between AB and BB wasn't completely put to rest when Dwyer said this week, "I'll be interchangeable plus Luke Cox, and Anthony Allen." I agree with parts two and three but Dwyer isn't playing any A-back. Everyone else is either backing him up or trying to earn a spot on the field as an A-back.
"At the running back position, we have a lot more depth," said Coach Johnson recently. For those hoping for a Ricky Williams like 2,000 yard season for JD, it's not going to happen. That increased depth and talent will mean the carries will be spread around more and Johnson also said as much. "The a-backs there's going to be competition. At b-back, I don't know if anyone can replace Jon but he won't have to play as much. I think anytime you bring in new players and new talent, there will be competition." I'll jump back to the numbers to help guide my prediction for Dwyer this season. With an increased estimate of 736 carries for the team, Dwyer will lower his share to about 26% for a total of 190, which is similar to the 200 carries he had in 2008. His career YPC is 6.5. I guess he'll improve on his 2009 total of 7.0 YPC to around 7.3 YPC, giving him 1,300 carries on the season. He'll continue being a touchdown machine as well and will improve on his last year's total TDs of 12 by one and finish with 13.
Dwyer is not perfect, just great. When asked about ways Jon can improve, Coach Johnson offered up this constructive criticism, "There are a lot of areas. The one that jumps off the map is blocking. Certainly he can do better at that. I think he'd be the first to tell you. Jon's very blessed and a very talented young man. It's only going to help him and get in the flow and to understand better that experience will help." And I think we'll see that side of JD this year as he paves the way for the deep and talented group of A-backs. Teams will have to pick their poison in 2009.
The most telling clue that the talent and improvements at A-back have arrived is going to be the diminished play of a guy who started all 13 games last season - Lucas Cox. Opposite of Roddy Jones on the A-back depth chart, it shows a virtual three-way tie for starter. I don't think that will be the case though. I think Cox will truly be interchangeable but I think he gives Tech a better look as a B-back. It has been suggested that teams knew more-or-less last season that Cox was in at A-back to block. With guys like Anthony Allen eligible now and a year in the system for Embry Peeples and Marcus Wright, there will be even more uncertainty from the defense when trying to guess which back will run the ball. And if injuries hit – Tech was very fortunate in that category last season – then we already know what Cox can do at A-back and that he'll be a solid contributor.
So, I predict Cox will be more in competition with Richard Watson for the backup B-back position and will be used much less at A-back. Dwyer echoed those sentiments and also backed up Coach Johnson's comments about the D-Train pulling into the station a little more this season. "I think Coach Johnson trusts any of the b-backs," said Dwyer. "I think Daniel Drummond is a good one too, and it depends how he does as to where he'll be on the depth chart. I think Preston and Richard are solid. Cox will be mixed with the A-backs and B-backs. Right now it's between Richard and Lucas for number two. I think I'll get more time to rest."
Preston Lyons has impressed the coaches a good bit with his spring performance. He gives the Yellow Jackets four legitimate B-backs going into the season. Due to the numbers, I don't see a Drummond getting in as a position player this season. He is in great shape physically though, so perhaps he can find his way into some playing time initially as a special teams force.
The other A-back I haven't spent much on yet is Roddy Jones. When healthy, we saw what he could do last season, he's a true star though he hides in Dwyer's shadows for now. His injured wrist may be problematic early on for practice but he should be able to be back to 100% pretty early in the season. I suspect he won't play in game one versus Jacksonville State but will target being ready for the critical game two against Clemson. Here's what Coach Johnson shared with the media about this situation, "He'll be ready for fall camp. He'll go through everything except it will be non-contact. We expect him to play. If not, we'll have somebody else ready to play."
If Roddy can't go in the opener, I think we'll see Allen and Wright – who Coach Johnson singled out as a standout from spring – in the starting backfield along with Dwyer.
Overall, signs point to more running and increased speed and confusion for the opposing defenses when faced with Tech's running attack in 2009. Dwyer and Johnson make good points about this year's offense below. JD has pointed to fewer turnovers in spring along with comments below about a proven scheme and with more talent than the system has seen. Coach Johnson points more to increased experience as a factor for improvements.
Dwyer: "I think it's a good scheme. You saw how good it was at Navy and how good it was at Georgia Southern. I think with the talent we have now, Coach can do a lot more things. He even said himself that he's never been around so much speed. I think it's always been a good scheme but it's the talent that he has now that's made it better."
Johnson: "I think it's all involved together. Anytime you do something more, you're going to get better at it I think. I don't know what's going to happen this year, but I know this. It's night and day between last spring and this spring. We have a long way to go and we have to be more consistent. I'm encouraged by what I saw this spring."
As with the QBs and Backs, the offensive line obviously has a lot to do with the success of both. Knowing that dynamic is important, it is something that will be touched on in detail when the OL position report comes around. So, don't think that aspect is being discounted, just tabled for another day.