by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Before getting into the details regarding Georgia Tech’s gridiron prospects for 2011, some clarification is required regarding the Yellow Jackets’ recent NCAA sanctions. On the surface the violations don’t seem like much, especially those on the football side that involved two players (reportedly star former gridders Demaryius Thomas & Morgan Burnett) allegedly accepting $312 worth of clothing from a friend of a sports agency employee. Hardly the sort of transgression that sends an offending school into the NCAA cooler. And while the Yellow Jackets didn’t lose scholarships or get slapped with a postseason ban, they were put on probation for four years, forfeited three games at the end of the 2009 season (including the ACC title game win over Clemson), and fined a hefty $100,000, which is a bit more than a slap on the wrist. All for a couple of shirts and a pair of shoes?

Well, sort of. The moral to this Georgia Tech tale is to cooperate with the NCAA in its investigations, or else. The school apparently offered little or no cooperation to the NCAA and its Eliot Ness wannabes, which played a large part in the hefty penalties for such seemingly-benign infractions. It relates, mostly in spirit, to the price Southern Cal had to pay last season for much more severe rule-bending, and the Trojans’ attempts at stonewalling the NCAA wherever possible. Those tactics did SC no favors when the punishments for its crimes were announced, just as they have cost Georgia Tech some significant cash and unnecessary embarrassment for a misdeed that is the college sports equivalent of jaywalking. The message to other schools that might in the future be on the NCAA radar is to cooperate with the investigation no matter how minor the infractions might be. Just ask Tech or Southern Cal.

That’s not all they’re talking about in Atlanta these days, however, as the Yellow Jackets have also reportedly emerged as a potential target for an expansion-minded SEC. Ironically, Tech was a charter member of the SEC, competing in the loop for 31 seasons before bolting for independent status in 1964. Regional chatter has the SEC plotting an expansion to 16 schools, meaning adding an additional four to the current 12-team mix. And the Yellow Jackets’ location in the Showcase City of the South would certainly make Tech an attractive candidate. Stay tuned for further developments.

We’ve spent time mentioning the recent penalties and the potential conference shifting because, frankly, that seems a bit more interesting than any discussion about the current on-field product for the Yellow Jackets, who made their third straight bowl game for the usually-clever HC Paul Johnson last season but nonetheless proved to be one of the bigger disappointments in the region, if not the whole country. Johnson’s usual bag of tricks seemed to be running on empty as the Ramblin’ Wreck limped down the stretch, losing five of their last six games, and actually finishing below .500 at 6-7 after an unwatchable 14-7 loss to Air Force in the battle of the option attacks at the Independence Bowl in Shreveport. Johnson had some excuses for the late-season fade, specifically a broken arm suffered by sr. QB Josh Nesbitt that sidelined him for the last month of the season, but the issues ran deeper than Nesbitt’s injury.

Fundamental breakdowns, the types not associated with Johnson-coached teams in Atlanta and at previous stops with Navy and Georgia Southern, became the norm in last year’s exasperating campaign, one in which the Jackets were also uncharacteristically sloppy, their 20 lost fumbles by far the most in the ACC and tied for worst in the country alongside West Virginia. Indeed, last year marked only the second time in the past nine seasons that a Johnson-coached team finished on the minus side (-6) in turnover margin. Moreover, the import of ex-Virginia HC Al Groh as the new defensive coordinator hardly produced as advertised, with Groh’s pet 3-4 formations being no more effective than the soft 4-3 looks that prompted the change of coordinators and philosophy after 2009. All of Groh’s experience, which included time served as an NFL d.c. and extensive familiarity with the ACC from his previous nine seasons in charge of the Cavaliers, paid no dividends a year ago. The thought around Atlanta is that another year getting familiar with Groh’s schemes and concepts should result in better performance this fall.

That sounds good in theory, but we’re not sure how well that will work out in practice with only five starters back in the fold for Groh’s stop unit and the secondary undergoing a complete rebuild job with four new starters. Groh’s first order of business is to locate a pass rush that was almost non-existent last season when generating only 17 sacks in 13 games, ranking 101st in the nation. Needless to say, with a brand new secondary, similar pass rush issues could have disastrous consequences this fall. The impact performers for the platoon figure to be at the linebacking spots, which were a little shallow last season in Groh’s first year using the 3-4 looks but appear deeper and more quality-laden in 2011. In particular, star soph OLB Jeremiah Attaochu (God bless you!), who flashed considerable upside as a frosh and had emerged as a potential dominator by the end of last season when recording a whopping 23 stops and 3 sacks in the Independence Bowl. Senior Steven Sylvester is a three-year starter at the other OLB spot and has the sort of burst that can do considerable damage on blitzes. Groh needs to replace ILB Brad Jefferson, the leader of the LB quartet a year ago, but feels good about his options in the middle, including soph fireplug Julian Burnett, who recorded 89 tackles last year, and 236-lb. soph former RB Daniel Drummond, who might have more athletic ability than anyone on the platoon.

What Groh needs, however, is his 3-man front to become more proactive and not require the linebackers to make all of the plays and tackles this fall. All starters return along the DL, and though the raw numbers indicate that DEs Jason Peters and Izaan Cross and 295-lb. NT Logan Walls should all be monsters, they conceded far too much ground last year (Tech was a very mediocre 78th in rush defense at 170 ypg) and rarely pressured opposing QBs. Despite the rebuilt defensive backfield with four new starters, there is some experience in the secondary, especially jr. CB Rod Sweeting, who was the first DB off the bench in 2010 and is envisioned as a potential shutdown corner by DB coach Charles Kelly. Last year’s experienced defensive backfield only contributed to a measly eight picks, however, a byproduct of the non-existent pass rush, so Groh can help his young DBs greatly by uncovering a more-consistent push from the front seven.

Johnson’s pet spread option moved the ball effectively as usual on the ground last season, although Tech wound up scoring almost 8 ppg fewer than it did in 2009. The Jackets led the nation in rushing at 323 ypg but were more unbalanced than usual, lacking any sort of aerial diversion and ranking above only Army in passing offense. Not that any Johnson strike force is going to resemble a Peyton Manning aerial show, but the ability to effectively sneak a pass downfield was a trademark of past Johnson options at Navy and his first two Tech editions. It wasn’t a year ago, partly due to the four games missed by Nesbitt and the absolute lack of aerial prowess by reliever Tevin Washington. Tech’s QBs combined to complete only 38% of their his passes in the worst display of aerial accuracy in Atlanta since Kim McQuilken completed 39% of his tosses for the Falcons in the mid ‘70s.

Getting that trial run piloting the flexbone, however, could give Washington a head start this fall. Washington gained 105 ypg rushing in his four starts and has mastered most of the nuances of an option QB, so expect the infantry to move effectively again. Redshirt frosh QB Synjyn Days, an explosive athlete, figures to be utilized in some capacity by Johnson, who doubles as his own offensive coordinator. Should either Washington or Days look to get the ball downfield, long-striding, 6'5, 200-lb. jr. specimen Stephen Hill (19.4 yards per catch LY) could do a reasonable imitation of recent Jacket receiving stars Calvin Johnson and the aforementioned Demaryius Thomas. Tech has also had a 1000-yard rusher in each of the past five seasons, so the graduation of last year’s rush leader Anthony Allen (NFL Ravens draftee) is unlikely to be felt too severely, especially since “A-backs” Orwin Smith (9.6 ypc in 2010!) and Roddy Jones (6.8 ypc LY) have demonstrated coast-to-coast ability in the past, while former Colgate (Colgate?) transfer Preston Jones indicated he was ready to handle the “B-back” (up-back) duties in spring. Three new starters must be plugged into the OL, but Johnson’s forward walls are always well-coordinated, and he never had a destroyer quite like 300-lb. G Omoreggie Uzzi in his days at Navy. Breaking in a new PK after 4-year starter Scott Blair’s graduation was another featured storyline in spring, with RS frosh Justin Moore (a scholarship kicker) being counted upon to replicate Blair’s 15-for-17 FG accuracy last fall.

Pointspread-wise, Johnson regressed to a 5-8 mark last season after covering 16 of 24 tries during his first two years in Atlanta. Note, however, that Johnson’s teams at Navy and Tech are 26-13 vs. the mark their last 39 tries as an underdog (8-5 the last three years with the Jackets).

Summary...We never want to underestimate a team coached by Paul Johnson, long regarded as one of the best in-game tacticians in the country. But his option tactics are not surprising ACC foes as they did his first couple of years on the job, and we’re more than dubious about the contributions of assistant Al Groh, who might be past his sell-by date as a defensive schemer. Groh’s presence provided little help to the cause last year, and a significant upgrade is needed by his defense to get Tech into the ACC title picture. If not, Johnson and his option are probably resourceful enough to get the Jackets back into a minor bowl game, but Tech seems several steps removed from its BCS Orange Bowl team two years ago.

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