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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 17. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Justin Thomas
17. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2014-2015 Record: 11-3 (6-2 ACC)
Coach: Paul Johnson, eighth year (59-35 overall)

Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: RB Synjyn Days, OG Shaq Mason
Heisman Hopeful: QB Justin Thomas
Breakout Player: RB C.J. Leggett

Heading into his seventh year in Atlanta, there was a sense of urgency for the Georgia Tech program and head coach Paul Johnson. Many ACC programs had seemingly figured out Johnson's patented triple-option offense and the team had been an average 28-25 over the past four seasons. Though, last season, Johnson finally found the QB (Justin Thomas) to run his triple-option attack and the results speak for themselves. A flaming 5-0 start was something but how GT ended the year was much more impressive. They won six of their last seven, including a dominant Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State, and went down to the wire in the ACC Championship against Florida State, their only loss in that span. Now, instead of pressure on Johnson to merely see improvement, there is pressure on him to win the ACC. With Thomas returning at quarterback and a very underrated defense, it could be a real possibility, with Florida State in a sort of retooling phase. Last year's Orange Bowl victory was the Yellow Jackets' first victory in a New Year's Six Bowl in over 60 years. Though, the talent remaining this year could make it two straight big-time bowls for an unorthodox program.

Backfield: It had been the same saying for years around Johnson's triple-option "If he finds a quarterback to run it..." And, last season Johnson certainly found his guy in Justin Thomas. The 5'11" junior is as quick as they come and makes excellent reads on the triple-option. Thomas' stats show just how dominant the relatively unknown QB was in 2014-2015; 1,719 passing yards, 1,086 rushing and 26 total touchdowns. Just as impressive is the fact that the young quarterback did not make many mistakes. He made the right, correct throws and was smart in the running game. If the junior once more can lead the way like he did last season, the Yellow Jackets' offense will have some serious bite to it once more. The question is going to be at the other slots in the flexbone backfield. B-Backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey were key components to the option attack. Days ran for 924 yards and nine touchdowns, showing impressive versatility. Laskey, meanwhile, ran for 851 yards and nine scores himself. Only adding to the questions beyond Days and Laskey is the fact that in all, five of Georgia Tech's top six backs were seniors last season. Clearly, that is a serious worry for an offense that is predicated around the ground game. One player Paul Johnson is hoping is going to step up in a big way is redshirt freshman C.J. Leggett. Leggett showed enough dazzle in the spring before his freshman year that Johnson considered giving him carries, but there was just too much experience in front of them, contributing to his redshirt. Now, Leggett could really show off his blend of speed and shiftiness in 2015. More experienced options include senior Broderick Snoddy and junior Dennis Andrews. Snoddy ran for 283 yards last season along with three scores, though a gruesome broken leg against Clemson ended his season. Snoddy hopes to be fully healthy and ready to contribute to the option attack once more. The track star certainly has the speed and explosiveness to constantly pick up big yards for Johnson and Tech. Andrews is a well-rounded back who boosted 106 yards on just 16 carries last season. Junior Isiah Willis along with redshirt freshman Clinton Lynch will be other options in a system that uses as much runningbacks as it can get it's hands on.

Receivers: Clearly, Georgia Tech will not pass the ball very much, but even so, losing two impact receivers in Darren Waller and DeAndre Smelter will hurt. Waller was a physical receiver who was great at making plays in traffic, while Smelter was an explosive athlete. The graduation of the pair will push names like Ricky Jeune and Michael Summers to expanded roles. That may actually be a lot to ask, considering Summers recorded just seven receptions for 45 yards a year ago while Jeune did not record a single catch last season. Jeune certainly has all the tools to be a very good receiver though. He doesn't have breakneck speed, but is strong and has reliable hands. Johnson will almost definitely rely on a number of incoming freshman to also step up in the passing game and make plays. That includes Harland Howell, Christian Philpott and Brad Stewart. Stewart and Howell are both local Georgia prospects who Johnson managed to keep away from other ACC/SEC schools. Howell is a solid, three-star with good size and a great feel for the game. Stewart is seen as a mere one or two-star recruit by most, but he could turn into a steal for the Yellow Jackets. Philpott is the highest-rated recruit of the incoming trio, seen as a three-star by 24/7 Sports and a four-star by ESPN. Philpott is a dangerous playmaker out of Tallahassee, Florida, with considerable upside. With so much losses in the receivers corps and so much experience, Johnson will lean heavily on the veterans and weapons in the backfield to help make plays with Thomas through the air.

Offensive Line: With the losses at multiple backfield spots, and mass youth at receiver and in that backfield, it is certainly a relief for Johnson and Georgia Tech that there is so much experience on the offensive line, where four starters return to guide the unit. That same unit was one of the ACC's best, allowing just under a sack a game (good enough for 2nd nationally). Seniors Bryan Chamberlain and Trey Braun will both by leaned on heavily. Chamberlain is the starter at left tackle, while Braun handles the guard position on the left side. Chamberlain is very athletic for his position and has seen plenty of snaps throughout his GT career. Braun is a ferocious guard with good size whose strength is definitely as a run blocker. Having a beast at left tackle will take so much pressure off of Thomas, and Braun will help pave ways for him and the rest of Georgia Tech's runners. Also returning will be right guard Shamire Devine and senior right tackle Errin Joe. Devine is the type of linemen that strikes fear into opposing defenders. A 6'7", 370-pound monster who often is needed to get out and make blocks ahead of the backfield, Devine can be downright terrifying. Perhaps the most impressive thing about him is that he was just a redshirt freshman last season when he played in 13 games starting many. He will only get stronger and grow even more comfortable in the Yellow Jackets' system, that asks a lot out of there guards. Joe is an effective tackle without much weaknesses who has long arms, and powerful legs. Up the middle, the Yellow Jackets will almost certainly miss Shaq Mason. The longtime linemen had the versatility to see action at either guard or center, and was so strong he was selected in the fourth round by New England in the 2015 NFL Draft. The only question on Tech's offensive line will be whoever will replace him at center. Sophomore Andrew Marshall showed promise in the spring and will fight with the more experienced Freddie Burden for the job, a junior. Whoever wins the job plays a very important role in the heart of the Yellow Jackets' flexbone offense. The future of the offensive line will rest in the hands of a number of incoming linemen in this year's recruiting cycle. Guard Will Bryan was yet another in-state gem that Johnson managed to land who has plenty of potential. Fellow guard Brad Morgan is another pipeline pickup who arrives with little hype, but who has all the tools to be a very strong staple on Georgia Tech's offensive line in the near future.

Defensive Line: Overall, Georgia Tech was average against the rush last season, ranking in at 62nd in the entire nation in rush defense. Though, the return of a number of run stoppers across their defensive line, plus the return of Jabari Hunt-Days, should only improve that number. Hunt-Days saw action earlier in his Tech career as a linebacker, but he has the size and versatility to see a ton of action at defensive line. Though, Hunt-Days was ruled academically ineligible last season, and the Yellow Jackets definitely missed him. No matter what role he plays in Georgia Tech's front seven, he is a proven run defender who tackles very well in space. It will be interesting to see if he needs any adjustment period, considering he hasn't played against a legitimate opposing offense in well over a year. Returning to lead the unit that saw action last year are a number of playmakers. Top among them has to be All-ACC defensive tackle Adam Gotsis, who returns for his senior campaign. Gotsis proved to be a very productive throughout his time with the Yellow Jackets in 2014, picking up 36 tackles along with 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He doesn't have much of an explosive first step, but he is a gritty, experienced vet who knows how to do his job. Joining him at defensive tackle will be gifted junior Francis Kallon along with junior nose tackle Patrick Gamble. Gamble had 25 tackles himself a year ago, and works hard to get to and plug running lanes while Kallon has the explosiveness and power to be an effective pass rusher. On the perimeter, defensive coordinator Ted Roof will lean heavily on some rather untested defensive ends, namely sophomore KeShaun Freeman and junior Rod Rook-Chungong. Freeman is actually GT's top returning sack leader, with 4.5 last year, but Roof will expect even more from him. He has the athleticism and high motor to really be a force for the Yellow Jackets this season. Chungong was pretty productive a season ago despite not seeing a ton of action. Bigger things will be expected and for a good reason, Chungong is a hard-hitting end with no fear. Also joining those two will be sophomore Antonio Simmons and sophomore Tyler Meriweather. Simmons saw just five tackles last season, and will look to grow into a more formidable presence at end, while Meriweather will be eager to make plays even without a ton of opportunities. Big things are going to be expected from the get-go for incoming end Anree St. Amour, who is seen by many as the Yellow Jackets' top defensive prospect in the 2015 Class. Yet another steal from the pipeline, Amour is a three-star prospect by 24/7 Sports with tremendous athleticism and loads of potential. It will be interesting to see how much, if at all, Roof and Johnson use the freshman this upcoming year. Tampa product Kyle Henderson has all the tools to be an impact player at defensive tackle in the future, while another tackle, Scotty Morgan was another three-star addition from Georgia.

Linebackers: Roof himself is a former linebacker himself, who starred at Georgia Tech in the mid-1980's and he will certainly take pride in this unit, which should be the strength of his defense. The big reason why? Look no further than junior P.J. Davis, a playmaking linebacker who will fill the Yellow Jackets' "WILL" linebacker slot. Davis will be expected to make plays all across the field, and he certainly did last season. Davis recorded 119 tackles, 8.5 TFL and showed a knack for laying down big hits, picking up three forced fumbles. Despite those impressive numbers, Davis was not selected for All-Conference honors, possibly serving as only extra motivation for the junior. With yet another year under his belt, Davis will continue to make big plays and add a swagger and leader to the middle of the Yellow Jackets' defense. Roof and Johnson are hoping that senior Tyler Marcordes continues to improve and become a weapon at inside linebacker. Marcordes is a versatile weapon to have on the defensive side of the ball, and showed plenty of promise last season. He had 31 tackles, 5.5 TFL and two sacks. He has great size for a linebacker and possesses a very high football IQ. Joining Davis and Marcordes will be senior Anthony Harrell, a longtime reserve who will finally get the chance to prove himself in 2015. Harrell had 19 tackles last season, showing a knack for big hits and making big stops as a run defender. He will continue to help strengthen the Yellow Jackets' well fortified run defense. Also returning is junior Beau Hankins and senior Domonique Noble. Hankins is a well-rounded linebacker who could play a variety of different roles on the inside or outside, while Noble is a strong, aggressive playmaking 'backer. Both will offer great depth to the linebacker corps as a whole. Johnson and staff did a great job recruiting this unit, bringing in a number of different players that can contribute right away but still have the potential to grow into All-ACC talents. Prospects like Victor Alexander, Tyler Cooksey and Brant Mitchell all have plenty of upside, despite not being huge recruits. Alexander is a proven run stopper who arrives from Jacksonville, Cooksey is a versatile playmaker from Georgia, while Mitchell was a steal from Tennessee and others (from Knoxville) who is a proven tackler. It will be interesting to see whether, and to what extent the trio is used this season.

Secondary: Teams won't exactly have a field day passing the football either against Georgia Tech, as
Chris Milton
the Yellow Jackets return a number of different talents in their secondary. D.J. White and Jamal Golden are ball hawking defensive backs who always find ways to make important plays. White is a senior corner who had four interceptions last year along with eight pass deflections. White is a quick, athletic corner with polished coverage skills. Meanwhile, Golden, a senior safety makes a living as Tech's last line of defense. Golden also had four picks last year, and like White, returned one for six. He also showed he could lay down some truly monster hits, coming down from the backfield full speed and laying the lumber, forcing three fumbles. Having guys like White and Golden will make teams very hesitant to attempt deep passes against playmakers like them, who are always around the ball. Joining White at cornerback will be another senior, Chris Milton, who is a proven shutdown corner as well. Milton had 32 tackles, two interceptions, and also returned one of them all the way back. Well not as physically gifted as White, Milton relies more on his smarts and great instincts to get to the right spots and make the plays he needs to. The strong safety position will be occupied by yet another senior, Demond Smith. Smith is as a powerful player and as scary a hitter as they come and receivers over the middle better watch themselves. Not gifted with as great of hands as many of the other defensive backs in the unit, Smith still finds ways to impact the game in a major way, as his big hits can pump up the team, or he finds ways to make other important plays. Depth beyond all these seniors is important, as a safety in case of injury. And, Roof and Johnson won't have to worry about it too much, as there is experience and talent throughout the depth chart. That includes junior Lynn Griffin, who can play corner or safety, along with tremendous athlete Corey Griffin, a sophomore who is a weapon at safety. In terms of incoming recruits, Johnson and staff brought in some decent talent. Cornerback Dante Wigley, is a find from Carrollton, Georgia, while three-star safety David Curry could really grow into something.

Special Teams: Junior kicker Harrison Butker returns, hoping to cement his job after a shaky 2014. Despite showing amazing power at times, he wasn't consistent and knocked down just 6 of 13 field goals. Punter should be in good hands though, with the return of junior Ryan Rodwell.

It has been over six decades since Georgia Tech last won double-digit games for consecutive seasons, back when legendary coach Bobby Dodd was strolling the sidelines. With the talent returning and the system in place, Johnson has the chance to change that. Justin Thomas has the legit talent and smarts to turn into a real Heisman candidate (if he cuts down on mistakes), and while there are losses in the backfield and at receiver, there is talent there. Experience and playmaking on the defensive side of the ball will help alleviate some pressure away from Thomas, and there is hope the inconsistent kicking game will improve. A nice easy start for Georgia Tech (against FCS foe Alcorn State and AAC cellar dweller Tulane) should help the Yellow Jackets figure out their weaknesses before a brutal four-game stretch that includes a non-conference meeting with Notre Dame in South Bend. The ACC Coastal is infamous for being a crazy division, but it appears the division finally has a clear cut front runner this year. If things work out, Georgia Tech could break that long streak without consecutive double-digit wins, and perhaps head back to the ACC Championship game, this time with a better result.

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