Jackets confident despite loss of marquee players

Change has happened quickly at Georgia Tech under coach Paul Johnson.

In just two seasons, Johnson managed to win the school’s first outright ACC title since 1990, take the program to its first BCS bowl game since 1967, and repeat as the ACC’s Coach of the Year.

In a matter of months this offseason, though, several of the leading contributors to that instant success have departed, leaving Johnson right back where he started when he entered the conference -- facing some serious doubts and ready to answer them head-on.

The Jackets enter 2010 without their leading rusher, leading receiver, top defender and four assistant coaches from the 2009 ACC championship team. For the first time since his arrival, though, Johnson’s defense has raised more questions than his spread option offense, which produced the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense in 2009. In addition to finding replacements for star defensive end Derrick Morgan and interception leader Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech will switch to a 3-4 scheme directed by former Virginia coach Al Groh, who was hired as defensive coordinator after Dave Wommack was fired.

While four early departures for the NFL draft left the Jackets with a shortage of star quality this spring, there certainly isn’t a lack of confidence their replacements can maintain the Jackets’ spot atop the Coastal Division standings.

“The confidence level is definitely high,” said Anthony Allen, who will take over for leading rusher Jonathan Dwyer at B-back. “I can tell you firsthand, we don’t think of ourselves as the replacements. That’s how college football goes -- players come, then they go. This is an opportunity for a new guy to step up and make himself a name, make himself a big-time player. We’re definitely confident in our abilities. We feel like we can go out and probably produce more than we did last year.”

That sense of security comes from the top, where Johnson said he prefers to look at what he has coming back, not what he lost.

“I think that we lost some really good players, but I think as a whole we’ve got more good players,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that we have great players, but we’ve got more good players. I don’t know that you get a Derrick Morgan that often. I don’t know that we have another Derrick Morgan right now. But I think we’ve got more depth and some good, young players. We’re excited about the young guys that people haven’t really seen.

“We lost an awful lot of good players, but my experience has been somebody else will step up,” he said. “That’s what needs to happen.”

Georgia Tech’s championship roster isn’t depleted -- the Jackets only lose five starters on offense and three on defense. It’s who they lost -- wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and Dwyer, who combined to account for 22 of the team’s 58 passing and rushing touchdowns, Morgan, who had 12.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss, and Burnett, who led the team with four interceptions.

Offensively, there should be a smooth transition this spring with Allen, a former A-back, taking over for Dwyer at his natural position. There are high expectations for receiver Stephen Hill to eventually be as productive as Thomas.

“In this offense, when you learn one position, you have to learn them all in order to know how it works, and how everything clicks together,” Allen said.

Defensively, though, Georgia Tech will be in transition. The fact that Groh and Johnson were recently two headstrong head coaches on opposing sidelines in the Coastal Division is only part of the subplot. The Jackets will have a nose guard for the first time. Some defensive ends will move to outside linebacker. Groh and the defensive staff have reviewed film from every game in 2009 and penciled in players at certain positions based on their past performances and winter workouts.

“We lined up in a bunch of different ways last year,” Johnson said. “It will take some time, but our guys are excited about it.”

If Georgia Tech can put it together on defense quickly enough, the Jackets will be one of the more difficult teams to prepare for in the country, as both the offensive and defensive schemes are unique to prepare for in a week’s time.

Georgia Tech has grown used to proving its doubters wrong.

“It wasn’t a fluke we were the ACC champs,” said Allen. “We were the champs for a reason. We’re definitely going to defend our title.”