Disappointing does not even begin to describe 2015 for the Georgia Tech football team. Following a week 2 pummeling of Tulane, the Yellow Jackets were 14th in the AP poll and positioned for a run at the ACC crown. But a 30-22 loss to Notre Dame was the beginning of a downward spiral that saw the Jackets lose eight of their last nine games with the only win coming in miraculous fashion against Florida State.
While last fall is in the past, the problems that led to the 3-9 season must be addressed.
5 Storylines to Watch in Georgia Tech’s Spring Practice
1. Restoring Justin Thomas’s Confidence
The troubles of 2015 were far greater than simply the quarterback from Prattville, Ala., and his level of play should rise as he develops a stronger belief in those around him. At times last year Thomas seemed unsure of who could be relied on and that led to an indecisiveness in his own decision making, which became apparent both in the running and passing games. This spring, head coach Paul Johnson and his staff would like to develop the offense as a whole so that the senior signal-caller can get his swagger back.
College Football Podcast: Transfer Rules, TV Networks and Jim Harbaugh
2. The Offensive Line
The development of the offensive line will be a high priority for Johnson and company this spring. Despite returning four starters from 2014, something was missing last year. They enter 2016 looking to replace three starters: left tackle Bryan Chamberlain, left guard Trey Braun, and right tackle Errin Joe. Freddie Burden returns at center after enduring a tragic 2015 season that ended with his father losing his life while waiting for a heart transplant. Massive right guard Shamire Devine will team with Burden to give Georgia Tech some experience inside while Trey Klock and Will Bryan look to build off the promise shown during their freshmen seasons.
3. Increasing Backfield Production
Georgia Tech finished last season No. 8 in the country in rushing offense. But their 256 yards per game was down 90 yards from 2014. Part of the issue was that the Yellow Jackets struggled to find replacements for Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey, two players that were very productive two seasons ago. On a positive note, two freshmen emerged as the leading ball carriers last season. True freshman Marcus Marshall led the team with 654 yards and four scores while redshirt freshman Clinton Lynch was right behind Thomas for third on the team with 457 yards and five touchdowns. Tech fans are hopeful that both of these players can become dynamic threats as the two A-Backs. C.J. Leggett was expected to be a key contributor last season but missed the entire year due to injury. He should help at the B-Back position.
4. Rebuilding the Secondary
The Jackets’ pass defense was 35th in the nation last fall, allowing a shade less than 203 yards per game. But four of the five starters in Tech’s 4-2-5 scheme are gone. The only returnee is Lawrence Austin, who started nine games as a nickel back. Safety Corey Griffin and corner Lance Austin have seen extensive action during their time in Atlanta but will need to step forward this spring. Also, freshman A.J. Gray will get a bigger opportunity heading into the 2016 season.
5. Finding a Pass Rush
Though Georgia Tech defended the pass pretty well last fall, it did so with limited pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. The Yellow Jackets finished the year with just 14 sacks, a total that ranked 120th nationally. Moreover, their most impactful defensive lineman, tackle Adam Gotsis, has exhausted his eligibility. Patrick Gamble and KeShun Freeman are now the leaders of the defensive line and linebacker P.J. Davis will look to generate some heat from the second level. Coupled with an inexperienced secondary, the lack of a pass rush could be a big problem for the 2016 Jackets.
Pre-Spring Georgia Tech Outlook in the ACC
No one should ever doubt Paul Johnson. There have been a few times during his coaching history where his programs seemed to be heading off the tracks and in each case he has found a way to put the train back on the rails. But this may be his greatest challenge since he arrived in Atlanta. His trademark offense sputtered in 2015 and the defense took several hits at graduation time. In order for this to be a successful campaign, the offense must get rolling again and that all starts with Thomas. Expecting to contend for the ACC Coastal Division may not be realistic. Getting back to bowl eligibility is.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.