Return to glory: Football ’09 season preview

A year ago, the Jackets were expected to struggle as they adjusted to new head coach Paul Johnson’s unique option-based offensive scheme. Instead, Tech adapted quickly and pulled off a 9-4 campaign, ended long losing streaks against Florida State and Georgia in dramatic fashion, and earned a berth in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Most of the 2008 squad returns, and while there are holes to fill, there is plenty of reason for optimism as the Jackets head into year two under the defending ACC Coach of the Year.

After proving last season that his offense was certainly a force to be reckoned with in the ACC, Head Coach Paul Johnson looks to take his triple-option offense to new heights this year. With nine starters returning on offense this year, including the defending ACC Offensive Player of the Year, junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer, the rushing attack of the Jackets appears to be well on its way to another highly productive season. However, this season Johnson hopes to implement more of his playbook and develop a greater passing threat to balance the run-heavy offense. There has been plenty of speculation that ACC defenses will catch up to the option attack in year two, and Johnson and his players will look to silence the critics by delivering on the field.

Junior Josh Nesbitt started 11 games for the Jackets last season, completing 54 passes for 808 yards and two touchdowns, but he completed only 43.9 percent of his passes. Nesbitt demonstrated his ability to lead the team on several occasions, but how well he adapts to the more pass-intensive offense that Johnson plans to implement will be a key this season. If the junior handles pressure as well as he did last season, then the new offensive approach could prove highly successful.

Sophomore Jaybo Shaw will once again be Nesbitt’s main backup this year. Shaw started against Duke and got playing time in three other games, and while he was erratic at times, he proved ready to take over when called upon. If Shaw goes down, redshirt freshman Tevin Washington would get the call.

Tech’s backfield is a clear strength on the team and is considered by many to be one of the deepest units in the nation. Dwyer will anchor the B-back position once again in 2009 after rushing for nearly 1,400 yards last year, and if he builds on his success, he could emerge as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Redshirt freshman Richard Watson will be Dwyer’s primary backup.

Meanwhile, the A-back rotation is not as clear-cut. Sophomore Roddy Jones will certainly be seeing the majority of the action at one starting slot after a strong 2008 campaign. However, juniors Anthony Allen and Lucas Cox will both see time at the other slot. Both Allen and Cox could also see some time at the B-back position—especially Cox, a short-yardage specialist. With sophomores Embry Peeples and Marcus Wright also in the mix, the carousel of talent should keep things interesting for opposing defenses all year.

Junior Demaryius Thomas will return as the primary receiving threat after leading the team with 39 receptions for 627 yards last season. Sophomore receiver Tyler Melton started seven games in 2008 and should be the other opening day starter. Depth behind Thomas and Melton could be an issue since previous receiver junior Correy Earls was converted to defensive back during the offseason. New talent included junior Kevin Cone who transferred to Tech from Shorter College and walked on last spring. After sitting out 2008 because of the transfer, he performed well in spring practice. True freshmen Stephen Hill and Jeremy Moore could also be factors.

Injuries allowed sophomore Nick Claytor and junior Austin Barrick to receive starting experience at both tackle positions in 2008. Still, replacing a pair of seniors in David Brown and NFL draft pick Andrew Gardner will not be easy. Senior left guard Cord Howard earned Second Team All-ACC honors in 2008 and returns to the line along with sophomore Joseph Gilbert. In the middle, senior center Dan Voss started every game last year but is facing competition from junior Sean Bedford, who saw action in two games last season.

While the running game and the offense get most of the attention, the defense could be a cause for concern in some respects this season. While several top playmakers return, the unit also suffered heavy losses, particularly on the line. Additionally, the defense allowed an alarming 80 combined points over the final two games of the 2008 season after allowing 81 through the first seven games, raising speculation over whether the defense would hold up against stiffer competition. With big tests early on this year, including a September 10 matchup against ACC Player of the Year candidate C.J Spiller and a potent Clemson offense, the Jackets’ defense will have to replicate its success from the first part of 2008 for the team to be a contender in the ACC.

The Jackets lost three starting defensive linemen—end Michael Johnson and tackles Vance Walker and Darryl Richard—who had combined for over 100 starts for the Jackets and were all taken in April’s NFL Draft. The lone returning lineman is junior defensive end Derrick Morgan, who emerged as one of the best ends in the ACC last year with seven sacks and 51 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss. Morgan will anchor a line that is still in flux heading into the season and could see some high turnover early on.

As it stands, three former redshirts are likely to be the opening day starters: Junior Robert Hall is a fast pass rusher at the other defensive end position, while sophomore Jason Peters and junior Ben Anderson should open the year as the starting defensive tackles. Several other players, including 350-pound redshirt freshman defensive tackle T.J. Barnes, should receive plenty of playing time.

The linebackers were plagued by injuries last season and struggled to create pressure and stop the run. Depth remains a major concern, so Tech will compensate for this apparent weakness and its strengths in other areas by shifting to a 4-2-5 scheme with two linebackers and five defensive backs, an uncommon defensive scheme in both professional and college football. Senior Sedric Griffin and redshirt sophomore Kyle Jackson will likely be the starters to begin the year. Griffin had played sparingly prior to 2008 but emerged as the leader of the linebacking corps, notching 53 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three sacks. Jackson had 61 tackles, third-most on the team.

Griffin and Jackson will form a rotation with junior Brad Jefferson and sophomore Steven Sylvester. Jefferson was the starter at middle linebacker to open the season before suffering a wrist injury, but he returned late and posted strong performances against North Carolina and Georgia. Sylvester was a reliable reserve as a freshman and should remain in that role this season.

Considered the weakest part of the team several years ago, this unit will be the strength of the defense in 2008 thanks to plenty of depth and talent. Cornerback Jahi Word-Daniels is gone, but since he missed the second half of 2008 with an injury, his replacement—sophomore Rashaad Reid—got plenty of playing time in his absence. Reid will be the starter opposite junior Mario Butler, who started all 13 games. Redshirt sophomore Michael Peterson will be important in nickel and dime packages, and sophomore Jerrard Tarrant, who was suspended for the 2008 season, should be a major factor.

Junior Morgan Burnett was one of the top safeties in college football last season, tying for the national lead with seven interceptions, which was more than the entire team collected two years ago. He will play alongside redshirt junior safety Dominique Reese, who had three interceptions. Sophomore Cooper Taylor, best known for his game-saving forced fumble to preserve Tech’s victory against FSU last year, will be the starter in a hybrid linebacker/safety position called the “wolf” as Tech shifts to the 4-2-5 scheme.

Junior Scott Blair returns after serving as the placekicker and punter for the Jackets last season. Blair, the first Tech player to handle both duties since 1983, hit 12-of-19 field goal attempts and averaged just under 39 yards per punt in 2008. He will have competition at both positions from sophomore Chandler Anderson, who was the holder last year and made five punts during the Duke and Gardner-Webb games. Roddy Jones returned 15 kickoffs for 354 yards and will probably be the main kick returner for Tech once again; he and Jerrard Tarrant will be the main candidates for punt returner after the departure of Andrew Smith. This unit was a major weakness for the Jackets, and the team has spent time working to improve in the offseason.

Paul Johnson silenced many of his critics with Tech’s surprising 9-4 record in a season many thought would be devoted to rebuilding the team and teaching players his unusual scheme. In Johnson’s first year as head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, the Midshipmen went 2-10 in year one before achieving five straight winning seasons. Rather than hiring an offensive coordinator, Johnson will continue to call the plays for the offense,

Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack transformed the defense into a unit very effective at creating turnovers. He retained some of the pressure schemes of his predecessor, Jon Tenuta, and combined them with his own defensive plays. The special teams play had its ups and downs, and coordinator Jeff Monken will look to bring some consistency to the unit. The amjority of the staff from 2008 will return.

Tech was a dominant force in the college football world in 1917, having allowed just 17 points all season including the season finale against Auburn. While the Tigers would eventually emerge as one of Tech’s main rivals, they were no match for the Engineers, as Tech crushed Auburn 68-7 to clinch the school’s first national championship. The win concluded a 9-0 season under Head Coach John Heisman.

At 9-1 heading into the game, the Bobby Dodd-led Tech squad endured a fierce battle in their only meeting to date with the Kansas Jayhawks. Tech managed to secure a 20-7 lead in the third quarter, but Kansas added a touchdown in the fourth quarter and drove down the field late in the game, reaching Tech’s goal line. However, Tech managed to force a fumble and recover to preserve the six-point win.

Tech was once again on the brink of a national title, having gone 11-0 leading up to the game and having surrendered ten points in a game only once all season. Facing Ole Miss, they allowed the Rebels the first touchdown but responded with four straight scores to win 24-7. It was the school’s third national title and Bobby Dodd’s first.

On Tech’s way to its most recent national championship, they defeated one of the preseason favorites and then-No. 1 team in the Virginia Cavaliers 41-38 at Charlottesville. The No. 16 Jackets came back from an early deficit to topple the fourth No. 1 team during the unpredictable season with a last-minute field goal. Tech jumped to No. 7 in the national rankings after the win and would eventually ascend to a tie with Colorado and be declared National Champions.

In one of the most dramatic comebacks in Tech history, freshman wide receiver Calvin Johnson caught three touchdown passes, including two in the last two minutes of the game, to defeat Clemson in Death Valley. Tech trailed by 10 points with just over three minutes left in the game, but the Jackets scored a quick touchdown and caused a fumble which lead to another touchdown to secure the 28-24 victory. It was just Johnson’s second game of his three-year career at Tech.