Georgia Tech is coming off a successful season of 9-5 in 2006 that included that ACC Coastal Division title. It could have been even better for the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech lost a chance at a BCS Bowl by losing to Wake Forest 9-6 in the ACC Championship contest. In the Gator Bowl, after building a sizeable lead, the Yellow Jackets blew it and ended up on the wrong side of a 38-35 decision to West Virginia, falling one win short of a double-digit total. Fifteen starters return to Atlanta this season in hopes of besting the 2006 performance. Head coach Chan Gailey is 37-27 in five years at Georgia Tech.
All-world wide receiver Calvin Johnson is gone to the NFL after the Detroit Lions selected him second overall in last April's draft. Johnson caught 76 balls for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns. The numbers would have been better if an accurate quarterback was tossing him the ball. In his final season at Georgia Tech, Reggie Ball completed just 44 percent of his passes and threw 20 touchdowns to 14 interceptions.
Enter Taylor Bennett(6-3, 215). In the Gator Bowl loss, Bennett threw for over 300 yards after Ball was ruled ineligible for the game. The passing game, ranked 91st nationally last season, should pick up even with the departure of Johnson. Ball was 87th in passer efficiency ratings last year and Bennett should have no problem exceeding the 44 percent completion rate mark.
The junior quarterback will have wide receiver James Johnson as one of his primary targets. Johnson, a 6-0, 190-pound junior, caught 39 balls for over 600 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Two questions remain to be seen: is Johnson ready to step up and can Demaryius Thomas, Greg Smith or Correy Earls produce as the second option? Thomas and Earls were red shirted last year and Smith caught just seven passes. Experience past Johnson might be a nagging question early in the season.
Whatever questions there are in the passing game, RB Tashard Choice (6-1, 205) should provide a solid foundation for the Georgia Tech offense. Choice ran for 1,473 yards and 12 TD's in 2006, including 5.0 yards per carry. Patrick Nix left the Yellow Jackets to take over the same position at Miami (FL) and new offensive coordinator John Bond would be wise to hand the ball to No. 22 early and often.
Choice benefits from having four starting offensive linemen back. Only the right tackle spot needs to be filled. Fullback Mike Cox (6-1, 250) will be the lead blocker for Choice and Bennett's transition to full-time starter should be eased by the running game, which averaged 165 yards per game last season. The four starters returning upfront should also give the passing game a little more time to develop under defensive pressure. In 2006, the group was 34th in the nation in sacks allowed.
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta loves to bring the pressure. Eight starters return from a unit ranked 27th in both scoring and total defense to wreak more havoc on opposing offenses. Up front, E Adamm Oliver (6-4, 270) totaled 70 tackles, including 11 for losses. Fellow DE Darrell Robertson (6-5, 245) chipped in with 54 tackles and 7.5 for losses. The two ends did combine for only 6.5 sacks. Backup Michael Johnson (6-7, 250) added five sacks of his own last year. Darryl Richard (6-4, 285) is a returning starter at defensive tackle while the position opposite the junior needs to be filled. Last year, the Yellow Jackets were 20th against the run and having three starters back up front is a good start to shutting down the opponents' rushing attack.
At linebacker, it starts with Phillip Wheeler (6-2, 230). In 2006, all Wheeler did was make play after play. The senior was second on the team with 89 tackles, including 14.5 for losses, which led Georgia Tech. Wheeler also led the group with nine sacks and opponents need to somehow find a way to put a helmet on No. 41.
Along side Wheeler, senior starter Gary Guyton (6-2, 240) returns after registering 29 tackles and eight for losses. Guyton also notched an interception. Tenuta will need to replace a hole at the third linebacker spot left by KaMichael Hall, who totaled a team-best 91 stops in 2006. Redshirt freshman Anthony Barnes and sophomore Shane Bowen are in contention to start.
As a secondary last season, Georgia Tech was 49th in pass defense but 9th in pass efficiency defense. The two safeties are the strength of the group. Jamal Lewis (6-0, 199) amassed 74 tackles last season and intercepted three passes. Lewis was second in this category to fellow safety Djay Jones (6-1, 200), who picked off four balls last year. Both are seniors and it gives the secondary valued experience in the back of the defensive alignment.
At cornerback, there are players with experience but they've yet to distinguish themselves as bona fide starters. Pat Clark (5-11, 185), Avery Roberson (6-2, 200) and Jahi Word-Daniels (6-0, 185) all got their fair share of playing time last season but together totaled only three interceptions. Clark and Robertson are both seniors while Word-Daniels is a junior. Clark got the first three starts of the year opposite the outgoing Kenny Scott while Robertson totaled seven starts to Word-Daniels' five. Robertson actually started seven of the final eight contests of 2006.
Punter Durant Brooks is a threat with his leg after averaging 45 yards per boot last season. In close contests, having a punter with a strong leg is a big key to winning the game of field position. Thirty five of Brooks' 79 punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.
Travis Bell is back as the place kicker but his performance must improve. Bell was 12-of-18 in field goals but just 2-of-6 from 40 yards and out. The return game must get better. Georgia Tech was 74th in kickoff returns and 84th in punt returns in 2006.
Georgia Tech opens the season on the road at Notre Dame. It should be an interesting rematch of last year's 14-10 thrilling win by the Irish in Atlanta. The storylines are everywhere on both sides of the ball. How will the new Notre Dame quarterback, whoever it is, deal with the pressure Tenuta designs to rattle the rhythm and flow of the Irish attack? Conversely, will Notre Dame's new 3-4 personnel defense throw off Bennett and limit the time the signal caller has to find his young receiver core? Maybe more importantly, which offensive line will be able to assert their will in the running game? September 1st is creeping closer and closer and fans for both sides should prepare for another tight finish.