ATLANTA -- A few minutes after the conclusion of Georgia Tech’s third spring practice on Wednesday, Paul Johnson addressed reporters with a touch of sarcasm. Someone asked how much stock the Yellow Jackets seventh-year coach puts into the first few workouts, when players aren’t wearing pads. Johnson laughed.
“Oh yeah, you can name your starting lineup off shorts and helmets,” he said.
The thing is, Georgia Tech has several important roster questions to answer this spring, especially on offense. Only two starters on the offensive line are back from last year's 7-6 team, though All-ACC senior guard Shaquille Mason is one of them. The team’s two leading rushers, Robert Godhigh and David Sims, have departed.
But no void is bigger than the one at quarterback, where the Yellow Jackets are holding a four-man competition for the starting job. Few expected the program to be in this situation after Vad Lee helped the offense average 6.1 yards per play, fourth in the ACC, during his redshirt sophomore campaign in 2013. But Lee announced his intention to transfer in January. He told ESPN that he had never been a fan of Johnson’s triple-option scheme, and he eventually landed at James Madison.
Now, freshman Matthew Jordan, redshirt freshman Ty Griffin, redshirt junior Tim Byerly and redshirt sophomore Justin Thomas are all vying for the chance to replace Lee. Johnson said that he’s splitting reps between all four, even affording Jordan and Griffin extra time to “catch them up.” Still, the coach has continually singled out Thomas, Lee’s backup last season, as the guy to beat going forward.
“You’ve got one guy who’s played a lot,” Johnson said of Thomas. “He’s going to separate himself really quickly because he’s been out there and played.”
Johnson isn’t overselling Thomas’ experience. As a redshirt freshman last year, Thomas played in 10 games and completed 9-of-17 passes for 131 yards and one touchdown. He also made an impact in the ground game, carrying 33 times for 234 yards and two scores. His 7.1 yards-per-carry average ranked second among Georgia Tech rushers with at least 20 attempts, just behind Godhigh’s mark of 9.4.
Thomas didn’t realize how quickly he would be thrust into the spotlight. But when Lee announced his decision to transfer, Thomas developed a new approach to the offseason.
“I was behind [Lee] all of last year, so I felt like once he made the decision to go, I had to step up,” Thomas said. “I had to become more of a leader than I was.”
The Yellow Jackets' coaches are high on Thomas’ speed and arm, and though the offense relies primarily on the run -- Lee attempted only 180 passes last season -- three key wideouts return. DeAndre Smelter, Michael Summers and Darren Waller combined for 923 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. They will be nice weapons for whoever ultimately wins the starting job.
Tech quarterback coach Bryan Cook joked that this spring’s race is giving him “a few more gray hairs.” But the second-year assistant praised Thomas’ running ability and experience in game situations.
“Game experience is very valuable, however many plays it is,” Cook said. “Timmy played something like 35 snaps last year, and even that helped Tim. However many Justin played, that’s something, from a confidence standpoint, to fall back on. When you see things in a game field, the speed and the recognition, those things happen faster.”
Georgia Tech’s other task this spring will be taking steps toward becoming a contender in the ACC. Since winning at least nine games in each of Johnson’s first two years in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets have posted an eight-win season only once (2011). The program won the ACC title that year, but the crown was later vacated as part of NCAA sanctions against the university. While Tech has appeared in bowl games in all six of Johnson’s seasons, it has dropped five of those contests, including a 25-17 Music City Bowl loss to Ole Miss in December.
Last fall Georgia Tech opened 3-0, a run that included wins over Duke and North Carolina. But the Yellow Jackets then plunged into a three-game losing streak to fall back to .500. Fans have gotten a bit restless about the program’s relative mediocrity, especially for a school situated in a recruiting hotbed like Atlanta. One of the faithful even called for Johnson’s dismissal in his January obituary. That same month, rumors swirled that Johnson was unhappy with the university and seeking a buyout; the coach subsequently denied the reports.
For now, Johnson remains the man in charge of rejuvenating a historically successful program. He knows the Jackets have several issues to address this spring, but there’s reason for excitement: Senior running back Zach Laskey is poised to be a major threat in the backfield, and there’s serious buzz surrounding freshman back Travis Custis. The defense loses All-ACC defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, perhaps its best player in 2013, but a veteran secondary, which includes Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden, is set to shine next fall.
The Yellow Jackets bring back only 11 players who started at least seven games last year, but as far as their roster is concerned, there’s enough talent on the field to make some noise. Thomas said that much is clear even in shorts and helmets.
“It doesn’t feel like a drop-off,” Thomas said. “This team has a lot of great individual players. The more we work together, the better off we’re going to be.”STAPLES: Northwestern ruling sends clear message: NCAA, it's time to negotiate