Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Last year, expectations were moderate to low for Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who brought a new offense and a new defense to Atlanta for a young team to digest quickly. After winning nine games and tying for the Coastal Division title, the bar has been raised for 2009.
The Yellow Jackets return almost every skill position player on offense and the bulk of the linebacker and secondary units. Still, it's a young group expecting to contend for the Coastal Division title.
With spring practice now underway, Johnson shared some thoughts on this year's team. Here are the highlights of our interview:
When you win nine games your first year, you set the bar pretty high. What does this team need to do this spring and summer to take it to the next level and win 10 or 11?
Paul Johnson: We've got to continue to do all the same things we've been doing, work hard and certainly there are a lot of areas we can improve in. We need to be more consistent. There were times last year that we played very well and times we didn't show up. We've got to become more consistent that way. I think most of our guys are going to be a year older, so hopefully they know what we expect from them, and I've been encouraged by the way they're working.
Do you think some of that inconsistency might have stemmed from the fact you had so many young kids?
PJ: Probably some of that is the case, maybe, but it's time to grow up now. We're still going to be young. We still only have six scholarship seniors on the team.
Wow, I didn't realize that. Was from attrition or what?
PJ: There just weren't that many guys in the class when we came. We have lost a few out of the class, probably three or four that would've been in the class, but there just wasn't very many of them. We've actually only got two of them that play.
What's the biggest difference you've noticed heading into your second season?
PJ: I think the attitude and the expectation level. I think everybody understands now what we're asking and what we're trying to do. It's a lot smoother that way. We can go a lot faster.
For those of us who can't break down film, how much better could the offense have been executed last year?
PJ: I think we could've done a lot better. Not just in offense, but in most categories. We certainly have to get better in special teams. I mean, that was awful. We're working hard on that this spring, the return game specifically. We left a lot of things out there offensively that we need to be able to take advantage of. We have to protect the passer better, we need to throw and catch better, the option part of it should get better, too, as we do it more. We've got all those guys coming back, we need to get better.
It seems like you have some more depth at wide receiver, would that lend you to throw the ball more?
PJ: Yeah, I think we do ... I think we've got more depth everywhere. I think we're still, this fall, going to be at about 79 scholarships or 80. So we're still under a little bit. I did that because I'm trying to get the classes balanced back up. And we're only going to have six scholarship seniors this year, so unless we were going to not have any kind of a signing class, we had to hold a few. I just think we can get better everywhere. When you have more depth it's going to help you.
We have more depth at running back. Last year it was kind of Jon (Dwyer), and if Jon got hurt, we were sliding Lucas (Cox) everywhere, and if you took him out, it was all freshmen who played. This year we've got a lot more depth at both positions, receiver, and it will be helpful.
That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about. With some new additions back there like Anthony Allen, it seems pretty crowded in the backfield, a good problem. How is the competition going there?
PJ: It's going well. We've only been out there four days. We tried to play a little bit on Saturday. I think we probably put too much on Anthony on Saturday. He's playing A and B and all that, and he hasn't played, so I'm going to try to leave him in one spot for a little bit and let him play. Lucas is probably going to end up playing some B back, so we'll mix and match a little bit, and by the end of spring, hopefully we'll have an idea who our best 11 players are and then we'll get them in those positions.
How are you looking up front on both sides?
PJ: It's funny because I thought on the offensive line we were going to have all of our guys back, and then Nick Claytor is having back surgery and Danny Voss is out for the spring nursing a shoulder, so we've got some young guys. We've got four scholarship freshmen coming in this fall. That's one area we don't have any depth. I think we're at about 10 or 11 offensive linemen, and a large part of those kids are walk-ons. We don't have a lot of depth, so we'll be able to get our young guys a lot of reps and then when fall camp rolls around, that should be a big benefit to us, a big help.
And the D-line?
PJ: We moved a couple of guys down. Derrick Morgan is back, and he needs to be the bell cow up there. He's a special player. He can be really good. A lot of guys did some good things Saturday when we played around. T.J Barnes made some plays, a redshirt freshman. T.J.'s a big guy, he's about 6-7, 350, and we think he's going to be a good player. Logan Walls did some nice things, Robert Hall played a little bit last year. We've got about 12 guys we're rolling in there. It's going to be different. We'll probably play more guys, and they're going to be younger, but I think we'll be alright there.
Some fans have wondered whether ACC defenses might be better at defending your offense now that they've seen it. Did you experience that when you were at Navy, that opponents got used to it?
PJ: Not really. They'll probably get better ideas maybe or whatever, but we're going to get better doing it, too. It's a tradeoff. We were in a league at Georgia Southern, we won the league all five years. I didn't see a change a lot from Year 1 to Year 2. At Navy we played a lot of the same teams. Some teams played us better than others. The teams with the best players seem to have the best ideas. I don't worry about that. If that was the case, when Navy and Air Force played, it would always be 0-0.
PJ: It's just like saying, 'OK, we play against a spread offense every year, are we going to get better at defending it?' It is what it is. I don't think there's any magic elixir or way you line up and, 'oh, no, they can't do this.'
Where do you think the biggest improvement needs to come?
PJ: I think our kids played fairly hard, but we can play harder. We need to play smarter. We can make huge strides in the special teams. That's one area we can get way better. I think we can be better everywhere. Certainly we can play better on defense. We started out strong and didn't finish up very good. And offensively it was kind of the reverse. We started out slow and got a little better as the season went along. We had a couple of clunkers in there. Just by being consistent and being better, hopefully we'll be a better football team this year.
Now, does that mean you win more games? I don't know. We won a lot of close games that could've gone either way. You could make a case that we could've lost some of the games we won, and I could make a case we could've won a couple we lost. But that's the way it's always going to be.
Do you know who your return guy is going to be?
PJ: Mmm, I've got a pretty good idea. It won't be a guy that played last year, probably on punts.
Switching things up a bit?
PJ: Well, we've got some guys back. We've got a guy I think can be a special punt returner in Jerrard Tarrant who didn't play last year. Roddy Jones did an adequate job on kicks ... we're going to look at everything. We're going to change up some personnel, we're going to change up some schemes, and see if we can't do a little better job in that area.
The only other thing I wanted to ask you about was Josh Nesbitt. How has he been doing, and has he been 100 percent healthy?
PJ: Yeah, he's been healthy. He's doing well. He's another guy I think will be the first to tell you he's got to get more consistent. He's made a lot of big plays for us. He's got to make all the plays. We can't miss open guys and throw it over their heads and do some of that stuff. He's played a year now, he needs to be the leader, and I think he'll step up and do that. We've got two guys pushing him this spring. Jaybo's (Shaw) played some and he's pushing, and we've got a kid named Tevin Washington that we redshirted, that's really hard to tackle, and he played well on Saturday, too, so there's some competition there.