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March 21, 2009

Johnson has hopes high at Georgia Tech

A big first season under coach Paul Johnson has raised optimism of an even bigger second season at Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets won nine games last season, and with a veteran team returning, it's not a stretch to suggest the Yellow Jackets could equal or better that total.

If spring practice reveals adequate replacements at tackle both offensively and defensively ending a decade-long drought without an ACC championship is possible, too.

Here's a look at Tech as it prepares for spring football.

GEORGIA TECH AT-A-GLANCE
Quarterback Josh Nesbitt did an excellent job in his first season running Paul Johnson's triple-option offense.
THE BASICS
Coach: Paul Johnson
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 ACC. Lost to LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Spring dates: March 23-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (9): RB Lucas Cox, RB Jonathan Dwyer, G Joseph Gilbert, G Cord Howard, RB Roddy Jones, WR Tyler Melton, QB Josh Nesbitt, WR Demaryius Thomas, C Dan Voss.
Defense (7): SS Morgan Burnett, CB Mario Butler, LB Sedric Griffin, LB Kyle Jackson, E Derrick Morgan, FS Dominique Reese, CB Rashaad Reid.
Special teams (1): K/P Scott Blair.
Positions of strength

Any team with Jonathan Dwyer, who rushed for 1,395 yards and averaged 7 yards per carry, is going to be strong at running back. The Jackets also have Roddy Jones, who rushed for 690 yards and averaged more than 8 yards per carry as a freshman. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt did an excellent job in his first season running Johnson's triple-option offense. The offensive line returns three full-time starters and should be better-versed in the triple option this season. The secondary returns all four starters; the key guy is Morgan Burnett, who last season tied for third in the nation with seven interceptions.

Help is needed

Three of four starters on the defensive line completed their eligibility and leave huge holes. End Michael Johnson had All-American credentials, while tackles Vance Walker and Darryl Richard received All-ACC acclaim. Georgia Tech ranked among the top 20 in sacks last season and top 25 in rushing defense. Duplicating those feats won't be easy. Offensively, Georgia Tech must replace both starting tackles.

Keep an eye on

RB Anthony Allen: As mentioned, the Yellow Jackets are solid at running back. But one more never hurts. Allen provides more depth and another option. A transfer from Louisville, he led the Cardinals in rushing with 696 yards in '07.

DT T.J. Barnes If the defensive line hadn't been so strong last season, Barnes might have played as a true freshman. As a redshirt freshman he'll be counted on to fill some of the void up front. At 6 feet 7 and 325 pounds, he can take up a lot of space.

OT Nick Claytor: Injury issues thrust Claytor into the starting lineup in the last five games last season. His performance raised expectations. The Yellow Jackets averaged 405 yards of total offense in games Claytor started.

His time is now

Overlooking Derrick Morgan has been easy. He was the defensive lineman who didn't attain any all-conference recognition last season. But now that Johnson, Walker and Richard have left to pursue NFL ambitions, the accolades could be coming Morgan's way. He had a good year in '08 with 51 tackles and 7.5 sacks. He might be even better in '09. On the other hand, he likely will be the focus of attention from opposing offensive lines.

The buzz

Johnson made a big splash in his first season. With a majority of the offensive starters returning and with a year's experience in the triple-option offense, there is serious talk the Yellow Jackets could improve on last season's nine victories. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, though. If there are signs of growth in that area this spring, the Yellow Jackets will go into the fall with legitimate ACC championship and top-10 aspirations.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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