Following a dreadful 2015 season, Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech are ready to return to the ACC's top tier
ATLANTA — Freddie Burden is a fifth-year senior on Georgia Tech's offensive line, and as an elder statesman in the locker room, he has started to ponder his college football legacy. That's particularly true after last season, when the Yellow Jackets went a dismal 3–9. As the 6' 4'', 300-pound center prepares for his final collegiate campaign, Burden can't help but sympathize with last year's seniors, a group that ended its career on a low note.
"I know last year, the seniors didn't want to be that team, going 3–9 like we did," he says. "That's definitely something I don't want to have on me for my senior year."
That team was one of the sorriest that Georgia Tech has produced in more than two decades. The Jackets lost nine of their final 10 games, posting their worst record in eight seasons under coach Paul Johnson and their worst mark since going 1–10 in 1994. Most perplexingly, the program's disastrous 2015 came just a year after it won 11 games, reached the ACC title game and throttled Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. In the span of a calendar year, Georgia Tech devolved from a College Football Playoff threat into a conference cellar-dweller.
Now, few teams better understand the razor-thin margin between winning and losing.
"We don't want to do that again," Burden says. "For that reason, I think it's good people are being reminded of that season."
Still, Georgia Tech wants to do more than simply avoid losing. It wants to prove it can emerge as an ACC contender, and in 2016 that means surpassing expectations. "Last year I'm hoping was an enigma," Johnson says, "and not the way it works."
To ensure it was an outlier, Georgia Tech must improve on offense. Johnson's triple-option attack took a drastic step back last fall by averaging 85.9 fewer rush yards per game (342.1 in 2014; 256.2 in '15) and dropping from an average of 6.1 yards per carry to 5.3. The Jackets struggled to replace backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey, who had combined to rush for 1,775 yards in '14. Instead, injuries forced true freshman B-back Marcus Marshall (654 yards) and redshirt freshman A-back Clinton Lynch (457 yards) to develop as Georgia Tech's leading rushers. Combined with a less efficient passing game, the group went from scoring an ACC-best 37.9 points per game to 29.3, which ranked sixth in the league.
Quarterback Justin Thomas, in particular, looked out of sorts in his second season as the starter. He ended 2014 as the Orange Bowl MVP after having rushed for more yards in a season (1,086) than any quarterback in program history. But as a junior he rushed for just 488 yards and saw his yards-per-carry average drop from 5.7 to 3.4. Moreover, he completed just 41.7% of his passing attempts, falling well short of his preseason billing as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
Losing was unfamiliar to Thomas, who had starred on winning teams for his entire football career. As a senior at Prattville (Ala.) High he earned state championship game MVP honors in helping his school to the 2011 Class 6A title. As losses piled up last fall, Thomas found himself shouldering the burden for the offense's struggles. "I've never had a season go that bad," Thomas says. "It was tough. I know personally I can do better. I had some games where if I'd played better, we'd have won."
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Youth and injuries also played major roles. The Yellow Jackets had graduated Davis and Laskey as well as receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller, all of whom now play in the NFL. Plus, key pieces like B-back C.J. Leggett and offensive lineman Chris Griffin missed all of 2015 after being hurt. Things got so bad that during a 38–21 loss at Miami on Nov. 21, quarterbacks coach Bryan Cook remembers peering out of the coaches box and counting seven true or redshirt freshmen lining up at the same time. That inexperience was one reason Georgia Tech finished 1–6 in one-score games and 12th in the ACC in turnover margin.
The vibe was different around the program this spring, though. Those young players now have a season under their belts, and guys like Leggett and Griffin were healthy for practice. Leggett is expected to team with Marshall and true freshman Dedrick Mills to form a solid B-back corps. The Jackets also bring back their go-to receiver in Ricky Jeune, who caught 24 balls for 520 yards with four touchdowns in 2015.
Thomas, meanwhile, has spent much of the off-season honing his patience. Last year he lost fumbles that led directly to opposing touchdowns in losses to North Carolina and Virginia. He also threw two more interceptions (eight) than he did during the 2014 campaign. Forcing plays became a problem, and this spring coaches advised Thomas to slow down his decision-making. "When we do throw it, we've got to be able to complete the home runs when they're there," Cook says. "But when things aren't clean, tuck it and get 10 yards out of it. Don't force the issue."
Even if Thomas and the offense bounce back, Georgia Tech needs its defense, which returns just five starters, to step up. A unit that finished 12th in the league in total defense (368 yards per game allowed) loses All-ACC defensive tackle Adam Gotsis and four seniors in the secondary. The program returns P.J. Davis, its leading tackler in 2015, as well as fellow linebacker Brant Mitchell. But the priority will be getting to the quarterback; Georgia Tech's 14 sacks last season ranked 120th nationally.
History suggests Johnson knows how to reverse Georgia Tech's fortunes. Last season was only his second losing campaign as a head coach (he went 2–10 in his debut season at Navy in 2002). The Yellow Jackets are no strangers to rebuffing expectations, either. They were picked sixth in the ACC's Coastal Division when they reached the conference title game and won the Orange Bowl in 2014.
Last season's underwhelming results haven't been erased from the minds of Georgia Tech's players, and that's by design. Now Burden, Thomas and the rest of the Yellow Jackets aim to return their program to the thick of the ACC conversation. "If you have a successful year," Thomas says, "they'll talk about you."