Special teams could make or break Georgia Tech’s season
ATLANTA (AP) — Coach Paul Johnson will open the season knowing what to expect from his spread option offense and the team’s new defensive scheme.
Georgia Tech, as it’s done since Johnson took charge in 2008, will run the ball about 85 percent of the time with Johnson calling the plays.
The defense, now aligned in a 3-4 under coordinator Nate Woody, has been designed to create more pressure and turnovers. The Yellow Jackets worked all offseason to get quicker and more agile in ball pursuit.
But after Georgia Tech hit rock bottom on special teams last year, Johnson knows that 2018 could hinge on how well the Yellow Jackets perform in the kicking game.
They went 5-6 last season, missing a bowl for the second time in three years, in large part because they ranked 99th nationally in kickoff returns and 115th in kickoff coverage.
Georgia Tech allowed six kickoff returns of at least 40 yards. They ranked 65th in punt returns and 89th in punt coverage, the latter category a disappointment given that returning punter Presley Harvin ranked second in the Atlantic Coast Conference with an average of 44 yards.
With the opener just two weeks away, the team has yet to settle on a kicker with Davis, King and walk-on freshman Wesley Wells competing for field-goal, extra-point and kickoff duties. Davis won the job in camp last year but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game at Miami.
“I have no idea who the kicker’s going to be,” Johnson said Wednesday. “It’s been a little less than stellar in camp, just to be honest. We’ll work it out. We’ve still got a couple of weeks. We’re charting every kick and we’ll figure out who gives us the best chance.”
The basics, like accuracy, aren’t the only problem.
“It’s not getting them off, although sometimes it is,” Johnson said. “Yesterday the holders dropped two.”
Senior receiver Brad Stewart is first on the depth chart to return punts for the third straight year. He was steady with no fumbles but his longest return was 21 yards in 16 attempts last season.
Johnson still isn’t sure who will handle kickoff returns. He tried four different players last year and had a steady turnover in blockers.
Nothing seemed to work.
Some other things to watch as Georgia Tech tries to earn a winning ACC record for the first time in four years:
Senior TaQuon Marshall isn’t the first Jackets quarterback to spend the offseason working repeatedly with receivers to improve his accuracy. His primary jobs are running, handing off, pitching the ball and avoiding fumbles, but Marshall completed just 37 percent of his 116 passes last year and needs to get better.
Stewart and Jalen Camp are the starting wideouts with Stephen Dolphus and freshman Malachi Carter pushing for snaps. A-backs Qua Searcy, Clinton Lynch, Nathan Cottrell and Omahri Jarrett will get chances, too.
The Jackets hope Woody’s 3-4 scheme has a quick impact. They haven’t ranked better than 107th in sacks over the last three years. Last season they were 62nd in defensive pass efficiency, had just six interceptions to tie for 110th and ranked 124th in turnovers.
HOLD THAT LINE
Jahaziel Lee has seized a starting job following center Kenny Cooper’s foot injury. Johnson has yet to decide where Cooper will play when he returns. It will be either at center or guard with Lee taking the other spot.
ON SCHEDULE: After beginning the season against FCS Alcorn State, the Jackets visit South Florida and Pittsburgh before powerhouse Clemson visits Sept. 22. They get a reprieve of sorts against Bowling Green the next week, then it’s six straight ACC games before the regular-season finale Nov. 24 in Athens against Georgia.