ACC: Isaiah Johnson
Previewing the 2014 season for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who are looking to return to the ACC championship game.
Key returners: QB Justin Thomas, RB Zach Laskey, WR DeAndre Smelter, WR Darren Waller, OG Shaq Mason, OL Trey Braun, LB Quayshawn Nealy, LB Paul Davis, S Isaiah Johnson, S Jamal Golden, CB D.J. White.
Key losses: QB Vad Lee, RB David Sims, RB Robert Godhigh, OT Will Jackson, C Jay Finch, OT Ray Beno, DE Jeremy Attaochu, DE Jabari Hunt-Days, S Jemea Thomas.
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 20 at Virginia Tech, Oct. 4 vs. Miami, Oct. 11 vs. Duke, Nov. 15 vs. Clemson and Nov. 29 at Georgia.
Projected win percentage: 53.4 percent.
Instant impact newcomers: He’s not quite a newcomer, but Johnson does return to Georgia Tech in 2014. He missed the entire 2013 season, but as a junior in 2012, he led the team with 87 tackles. He returned the one interception he grabbed as a junior for a touchdown, too. Golden also is a very good safety who missed a significant amount of time last season. He, too, is healthy. In the 2014 recruiting class, four-star Stepheny Durham is a big-time talent, but the Yellow Jackets have a good amount of talent in the secondary. It’s possible Durham could see the field much more by the end of the season. There is room at running back, though, which means four-star CJ Leggett could get a few dozen carries.
Best NFL prospects: Mason, the talented offensive lineman, is probably the Yellow Jackets' top NFL prospect. Mason is one of the best linemen in the conference and, with a strong final season, could be a second-round pick, possibly even pushing into the second half of the first round.
Best-case scenario for 2014: Georgia Tech has become a stagnant program over the past few seasons, which is a disappointing trend, considering Paul Johnson won 19 games and played in an Orange Bowl his first two seasons in Atlanta. Expectations might be at their lowest since Johnson took over the program in 2008, but the Coastal Division in the ACC is wide open. Georgia Tech isn't capable of going undefeated in the ACC, but there is certainly a chance the Yellow Jackets will win the division. A bid to play in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the ACC championship would be the best-case scenario.
Worst-case scenario: Georgia Tech should start 3-0, which could provide some good vibes in Atlanta through the early portion of the season. But the tide could quickly turn against Johnson by the end of October. The Yellow Jackets play Virginia Tech, Miami, Duke and North Carolina in a row, a stretch that could define the 2014 season. The Yellow Jackets end the season against Clemson and at Georgia, and if those both end with Georgia Tech getting blown out, Johnson will be squarely on the hot seat.
In other words, there were no doubt a few ACC players whose names were left on the cutting room floor in our countdown, but who may well be among the league’s elite this season. Here’s an admittedly imprecise look at a few to keep an eye on.
If we’d been making a top 30 or 40 list instead of 25, these guys definitely would’ve made the cut. As it stands, they'll likely see their names on our end-of-year list.
WR Stacy Coley (Miami): Don’t be surprised if the Canes’ sophomore receiver ranks in the top five of our end-of-season list. No returning ACC player averaged more yards per touch last year (min. 50 touches) than Coley (21.8). He’ll need some help from an unproven quarterback, but Coley has the talent to be an All-American if things break right for him this season.
LB Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville): Already a star with 9.5 sacks and 12 TFL last season, Mauldin is poised to explode as he moves from defensive end to outside linebacker in Todd Grantham’s new 3-4 system. At Grantham’s previous stop at Georgia, he helped Justin Houston and Jarvis Jones parlay similar moves into super stardom.
DE Eli Harold (UVA): Virginia’s defensive line may not get much national publicity, but it’s jam-packed with talent, headed up by Harold, who racked up 8.5 sacks and 15 TFL last season. Both of those totals rank second among returning ACC players behind Clemson All-American Vic Beasley.
Injuries set them back, but these players are poised for big comebacks in 2014.
S Isaiah Johnson (GT): A burgeoning star on Georgia Tech’s defense, a knee injury cost Johnson all of 2013. He’s “past 100 percent” now though and expects to make a huge impact after a long wait to get back onto the field.
S Tyler Hunter (FSU): Last summer, Hunter was the unquestioned leader of FSU’s revamped defense, but a scary neck injury ended his season in Week 3. What might’ve been a career-ending injury turned out to be just a setback, and now Hunter will be the veteran voice in an immensely talented secondary that has led the nation in passing defense the past two years.
DT Mehdi Abdesmad (BC): As a junior last season, the 6-foot-7 Abdesmad looked poised for a breakthrough, recording sacks against USC and Florida State before a knee injury ended his season. If he can return to form quickly, he's in position to replace the 8.5 sacks BC lost with the departure of Kasim Edebali from its D-line.
WR Charone Peake (Clemson): When they arrived on campus as freshmen, Peake and Sammy Watkins were both considered can't-miss prospects. Now Watkins is impressing in Buffalo Bills camp and Peake is still looking for his breakthrough season. Despite an injury-ravaged 2013, he's being counted on as the top option for Cole Stoudt in 2014.
These players have already made some noise in the past but could make the jump to the league’s elite in 2014.
S Durrell Eskridge (Syracuse): Eskridge blossomed into a key contributor on Syracuse’s defense last year, recording 6.5 tackles per game (14th among returning ACC players) and four interceptions, but as the Orange look to replace key starters inside, Eskridge’s impact in 2014 only figures to expand.
QB Jacoby Brissett (NC State): Dave Doeren believes Brissett, a transfer from Florida who spent last season waiting in the wings, is a perfect fit for his offense, and the veteran has the confidence and trust of his teammates -- something NC State sorely missed at the position last year. Our preseason top 25 lists just one quarterback (Jameis Winston), so a few others have to state their case, too. Brissett should be chief among them, but fellow transfers Tyler Murphy (BC) and Michael Brewer (Virginia Tech) could certainly be in the mix, too.
OT Matt Rotheram (Pitt): Pitt's O-line was a disaster last year, but adding a more mobile quarterback in the backfield and a year of experience to the unit should help. Rotheram was the one bright spot through much of 2013, and he's now poised to get a hefty share of the credit should the revamped line take the next step in 2014.
They haven't seen the field (much) yet, but they’re in line for significant roles this season and could make the most of the opportunity.
LB Matthew Thomas (FSU): The Seminoles return plenty of talent from their national-championship run, but the linebacking crew is definitely an area with a few question marks. It’s a talented, but unproven group, but Thomas tasted action early last season before going down with an injury, and he showed he can make an instant impact -- perhaps in an edge-rusher role similar to what Christian Jones did for FSU's D last season.
RB Wayne Gallman (Clemson): It’s hard to project how the carries will be distributed in a crowded Clemson backfield, but two things are clear: The Tigers want to run the ball more in 2014, and Gallman has the potential to be a star. Coaches and teammates raved about his improvement in the spring, and Gallman will get every shot to win a job as a centerpiece of the new-look Clemson offense in fall camp.
OT Bentley Spain (UNC): Larry Fedora admits he doesn’t know quite what to make of Spain yet after the early enrollee missed a hefty chunk of the spring with an injury. Still, Spain is in line for the starting left tackle job at UNC, and with talent at quarterback and tailback behind him, it could be a quick start to his career.
The names aren’t familiar outside their own fan bases, but don’t be surprised if they’re making some noise by year’s end.
LB Marquel Lee (Wake): New Deacons coach Dave Clawson has his work cut out for him trying to find talent to fill out the depth chart, but he may have discovered an early gem in Lee. The sophomore was the star of Wake's spring game, and with so much turnover up front for the Deacons, Lee will get plenty of chances to make plays once the season begins.
CB DreQuan Hoskey (UVA): Here’s an interesting tidbit, courtesy of STATS LLC: No defender in the ACC was picked on more last season than Hoskey, who was targeted by opposing quarterbacks 81 times in 12 games. There were mixed results, of course, but it's worth noting that he wasn't burned for a TD on any of those plays. Next most targets without surrendering a touchdown among ACC defensive backs? Lamarcus Joyner with 37. He's part of a very crowded secondary, but Hoskey will get his chances to make an impact in 2014.
RB Shaquille Powell (Duke): He's overlooked because Duke returns its leading rusher from 2013 (Josh Snead) but teammates have raved about Powell's progress, and it's worth noting that while Snead is back, the Blue Devils still must replace 51 percent of last year’s rushing attempts after losing Brandon Connette, Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan.
Nineteen months removed from a devastating knee injury, however, Johnson is ready to take the field and re-establish himself as a leader in the Yellow Jackets' defensive backfield. Georgia Tech opened fall camp Thursday, and the countdown to Week 1 and return to meaningful action for Johnson is within a month.
Johnson had a difficult time adjusting after tearing both the anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament in his left knee in a bowl practice leading up to the Hyundai Sun Bowl against USC in December 2012. The 21-7 victory over the Trojans marked the first missed game of his career, snapping a 39-game playing streak — which included 26 consecutive starts — in his first three college seasons.
But the most difficult part might have come nine months later, with Georgia Tech's 2013 campaign already underway. Three games into the season, Johnson, who had missed spring practice, came to the conclusion with his coaches that he would be better off sitting out the remainder of the season, lest he risk further damage to a still-recovering knee.
"It was very difficult. I had to get it out of my system," Johnson said of the frustration. "But once I thought about it, [I] realized that this is the best thing for me."
"I've been playing football nonstop every year since I was 7, and 'til this point last year, I hadn't sat out a season, so it was hard for me and my family," the Tyrone, Georgia native later added, "because they had a whole football season [in which] they didn't know what to do, because they're used to watching me play."
Johnson said he stayed active by doing some light scout-team work during the season. He returned to practice this spring and was relieved to feel no hesitation breaking on balls or delivering hits to receivers. He said that the entire ordeal has only validated his love for the game.
"I think that it's been a work in progress for Isaiah," coach Paul Johnson said. "He was actually cleared last year but he just didn't feel right, so he wanted to make sure when he came back that he was completely healthy, and I think he's done that and I'm sure he's excited to play his senior year."
Isaiah Johnson led the team in tackles during his junior campaign, with 87 in 2012. And with safety Jamal Golden also returning after being granted a medical redshirt last season because of a shoulder injury, Georgia Tech will rely on its secondary to anchor the defense in coordinator Ted Roof's second season.
"Turnovers," Isaiah Johnson said when asked about the defense's goals, repeating the word three times for emphasis. "We want to lead the ACC and lead the nation or be in the top five, so turnovers, and being able to finish. We need to finish games."
The ACC's Coastal Division is wide open entering the 2014 season. With six of seven teams receiving at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll, the possibilities for how this race shakes out are seemingly endless. Here, we take a look at the six teams that garnered first-place votes, examining reasons that are working for and against them in their quests to get to the ACC title game.
Why Georgia Tech will win the Coastal
1) The secondary should be improved. Lose three starters, welcome back four. Sound confusing? Well, Georgia Tech does say goodbye to cornerbacks Jemea Thomas and Louis Young, but it returns a pair of players who had missed most or all of last season, as safeties Isaiah Johnson (knee) and Jamal Golden (shoulder) return from injury. Demond Smith had replaced Golden at safety last season and is now at corner, along with D.J. White, who was dominant in the Music City Bowl loss to Ole Miss (career-high 13 tackles, two forced fumbles, interception). This group should anchor the defense, perhaps offsetting some of the potential shortcomings that could await the defensive line this fall.
2) Don't sleep on special teams. Getting Golden back is crucial, as he is a versatile talent who showed he can make plays as both a punt and kick returner, having been the only player in the nation to finish in the top of each category in 2012. That might be easy to forget after some of the exploits of the rest of the ACC's returners in 2013, but Golden could be as good as any of them. Harrison Butker, meanwhile, is a reliable kicker with a strong leg, having converted 53 of 54 extra points as a true freshman last season, along with 10 of 14 field goal tries (including five of 40 or more yards).
3) The schedule is (fairly) favorable. Sure, six home games may be tough for most Power-5 conference schools to swallow in this era, but the Yellow Jackets do get Miami and Duke in Atlanta. More importantly, they get the Hurricanes following a bye week. The same goes for their trip to Athens, Ga., for the regular-season finale at rival Georgia. Georgia Tech's other three nonconference games to open the season are certainly winnable (Wofford, at Tulane, Georgia Southern), so it could help give this group some confidence going into the Sept. 20 conference-opening showdown at Virginia Tech.
Why Georgia Tech won't win the Coastal
1) The offseason turnover will take a toll. As noted Wednesday, Georgia Tech has had no shortage of turnover this offseason, and not in a good way. In addition to the seniors it said goodbye to like every other team, the Yellow Jackets have had 13 different non-senior players depart the program this offseason due to a number of different issues. ESPN 300 athlete Myles Autry, meanwhile, has been unable to enroll at Georgia Tech yet because of NCAA clearinghouse issues.
2) The defensive line has some question marks. Three starters are gone up front, the biggest among them being All-ACC end Jeremiah Attaochu. It will now likely be up to nose tackle Adam Gotsis to anchor the group after he tallied 14.5 tackles for loss last season. With second-year coordinator Ted Roof operating out of the nickel instead of the 4-3, Jabari Hunts-Days was moved up after playing linebacker, but he now finds himself sidelined for the season, as he is academically ineligible.
3) What do we know about the quarterbacks? Here's what we do know: Last year's starer, Vad Lee, is gone, having transferred to James Madison. Speedster Justin Thomas will replace him and seems like an ideal fit for Paul Johnson's triple-option attack, although he still has some work to do. Johnson is very high on reserve signal-caller Tim Byerly, but the possibility of him earning meaningful playing time inevitably begs the question of whether the Yellow Jackets have a controversy or competition on their hands.
- Defensive line could be a position of concern headed into the fall. There is not much depth at defensive tackle, and there are big-time question marks at defensive end. Right now, the Jackets list either Roderick Rook-Chungong or true freshman KeShun Freeman as the starter at the defensive end spot that lost Jeremiah Attaochu (NFL) and Jabari Hunt-Days (academically ineligible). Neither Rook-Chungong nor Freeman has played in a college game. The depth chart does not list incoming junior college transfer Kenderius Whitehead, who will be expected to contribute right away. At the other end spot, Tyler Stargel is listed as the starter. He has never started a college game. Tackle Adam Gotsis is the only returning starter in the group.
- At linebacker, it's no real surprise to see Tyler Marcordes taking over for Brandon Watts. Quayshawn Nealy is back and should be among the best linebackers in the ACC.
- The secondary also has potential, with safeties Jamal Golden (shoulder) and Isaiah Johnson (knee) coming back off injuries. The Jackets do have to replace all-everything Jemea Thomas and have Demond Smith penciled in at that safety/nickel spot. Lynn Griffin is listed as one starter at cornerback, taking over for Louis Young.
Georgia Tech: Despite heavy rain, the Jackets went ahead with their spring game Friday night. But they did so without quarterback Justin Thomas, who sat as a precaution because of a sore shoulder. Without him, junior quarterback Tim Byerly took the headlines, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown and passing for 69 yards to lead the White team past the Gold team 20-12. B-back Zach Laskey rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown for the White, which featured the first-team offense. Isaiah Johnson and Demond Smith scored defensive touchdowns on fumble returns for the Gold team, which featured the first-team defense. Redshirt freshman quarterback Ty Griffin, who started for the Gold team, rushed 15 times for 75 yards and completed one pass.
Syracuse: One day after coach Scott Shafer named him MVP of the 2013 season, quarterback Terrel Hunt took all the snaps with the first-team offense in the first half of the spring game and made it clear he is the unquestioned starter going into the fall. Hunt went 12-of-15 for 95 yards, though he did not lead a scoring drive. He and three other quarterbacks threw for 413 yards as the offense beat the defense 34-27. Ashton Broyld, looking for a role on the offense, led all receivers with eight catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Jeremiah Kobena also added two touchdown catches. Safety Chauncey Scissum and linebacker Josh Kirkland led the defensive effort with seven tackles each. Kirkland had two tackles for loss and one sack. Ritchy Desir, Cameron Lynch and Ron Thompson each made six tackles.
Spotlight: Defensive line.
2013 summary: The Syracuse defensive front deserves credit for the way it performed this past season. Despite early concerns about depth across the line, the Orange ended the season ranked in the top 25 in the nation against the run and in the top 10 in total sacks. A huge reason why was the stellar play of defensive tackle Jay Bromley, who turned in the best season of his career.
Bromley anchored the unit, picking up 10 sacks to rank No. 5 in the ACC. He had four career sacks going into the season. In all, Bromley had 42 total tackles to lead all Syracuse defensive linemen and had 14.5 tackles for loss, ranking in the top 10 on the school's single-season record list. His play was good enough to get him selected to the coaches' and media All-ACC third-team. And he was not alone. Eric Crume turned in a solid season next to him, with 28 tackles and two sacks.
Robert Welsh emerged at defensive end with 32 tackles -- seven for loss and four sacks. And the Orange were able to begin developing younger players such as Ron Thompson and Isaiah Johnson. Even after the devastating injury to John Raymon, this defensive line stuck together. It should be noted that Syracuse -- despite some lopsided losses -- was the only FBS school in the nation that did not allow a 100-yard rusher in 2013.
The skinny: The biggest question this spring -- perhaps on the entire team -- is who will fill Bromley's shoes? Syracuse does not have much in the way of depth at the defensive tackle spot. Zian Jones, who was the primary backup to both Crume and Bromley at the end of last season, was a senior. Raymon was injured last October, and it is unknown whether he will be ready for the start of the 2014 season.
That leads us to early enrollee Wayne Williams, a huge wild card. Williams committed back in 2012 but spent the last two years at junior college working on his grades. He did not play football last year, so the real question is whether the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Williams is in shape to not only contribute right away, but win a starting job. The Orange could end up relying on the crop of freshmen they just signed once fall camp rolls around.
The good news is three starters on the line do return in Welsh, Crume and defensive end Micah Robinson. Defensive end Donnie Simmons is expected to return from an injury after missing all of last season. Thomspon and Robinson are another year older. The two biggest issues here are depth at tackle and leadership. Bromley was the heart and soul of the line and made big promises during ACC media day last year about having the season of his life. He knew what he wanted to do, and he went out and showed it to everybody.
There is probably no way for one player to make up for Bromley's loss. The veterans in this group are going to need to collectively step up.
- The gang at AthlonSports makes its Week 3 predictions.
- BC makes sure to enjoy the wins, Jack McCluskey writes on ESPNBoston.com.
- Former walk-on running back C.J. Davidson has tackled a long journey at Clemson, Mandrallius Robinson writes in the Greenville News.
- Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper talks with the Raleigh News & Observer's Laura Keeley about the no-huddle offense.
- Injuries are mounting for Nevada as it readies for its trip to FSU, Brendan Sonnone writes in the Orlando Sentinel.
- Isaiah Johnson is being cautious after getting back on the practice field for Georgia Tech following ACL surgery, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Maryland is looking to keep running back Albert Reid involved in the offense, Alex Prewitt writes in the Washington Post.
- Miami is using the bye week to correct problems on offense, Christy Cabrera Chirinos writes in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
- UNC's running game is searching for big plays without Giovani Bernard, Andrew Carter writes in the Raleigh News & Observer.
- GoPack.com puts the spotlight on senior Ryan Cheek.
- New Mexico coach Bob Davie is preparing for a homecoming against Pitt, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- The Wagner game provides Syracuse an opportunity to cure what ails the team after an 0-2 start, Nate Mink writes in the (Syracuse) Post-Standard.
- Virginia has struggled to get its running game and playmakers involved, Norm Wood writes in the (Newport News) Daily Press.
- Virginia Tech is looking for reliable receiving options, Mark Giannotto writes in the Washington Post.
- Wake Forest guard Frank Souza is hoping to make strides, Dan Collins writes in the Winston-Salem Journal.
That same injury kept him out of spring practice, too. But Johnson said Monday he is doing great and looking forward to the start of the season. “I’m almost there,” he told ESPN.com in a telephone interview.
Whenever he does return, the Jackets will find a much more focused, much more grateful Johnson leading their secondary. Johnson says his time away from the game was a “humbling experience.”
“I feel like the Lord has put this on me to show me how much I love the game,” Johnson said. “I'm too close to quit. I feel like he put this on me so I can learn from this experience and give it my all to be able to reach my dreams.”
And what is the biggest lesson he learned?
“To remain focused, to be able to brush off when things affect you, to see who's in your corner because after this some people may look at you like, you may not be the same, so from this experience I can see who's in my corner, who's on my support team, and at the same time, I've had another level of focus because I want it that bad,” he said.
Johnson enters his third season as a starter as one of the most experienced leaders on defense. He led the team with 87 tackles a season ago. Georgia Tech goes into the season with a new defensive coordinator, one of the biggest story lines to follow on this team. Though Johnson missed spring practice, he participated in his own way.
In addition to getting extra time in the film room and studying his playbook, Johnson attended each practice and simulated plays on his own. During live plays, he would line up about 40 to 50 yards behind the defense, and would take steps and watch the play as if he was actually participating.
That simulation has given him a good comfort level with the new scheme, even though he has yet to go live in a practice. When he does return, Georgia Tech could have one of the best defensive backfields in the ACC. Johnson will be one of three senior starters returning, along with Louis Young and Jemea Thomas, who made the watch list for the Bednarik Award.
“I just see a lot of greatness,” Johnson said. “Once we reach our potential, we'll blow the country out the water. We'll be top notch. Once we really shine and do what we know we can do, we'll be able to prove ourselves and show everyone we are the best. We have a lot of potential on this team. There's a lot of talent on this team, and I can't wait for us to show everyone what we are capable of doing.”
It is having some of his best players on the sideline.
Johnson said Tuesday that three starters will be out when spring practice opens next Monday -- linebackers Jabari Hunt-Days and Brandon Watts and safety Isaiah Johnson. Safety Fred Holton, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, won't be full-go for spring, either.
"We have a couple linebackers out and couple guys in the secondary but what it’s going to do is give the young guys a chance and hopefully we’ll be able to develop some depth that way," Johnson said.
Starting center Jay Finch also will miss spring practice, along with A-back Tony Zenon and freshmen receivers Anthony Autry and Travin Henry. B-back Charles Perkins, who opened 2012 as a starter but sustained a season-ending injury in early September, should be back. Johnson said, "We’re counting on him, but we really won’t know for sure until we get out there and start banging a little bit."
There also are a few position changes to note on defense. Jeremiah Attaochu will become a full-time defensive end, after he thrived in that role in the second half of last season.
And Jemea Thomas is moving back to cornerback after switching to safety in 2012. He will be leading the competition to take Rod Sweeting's starting spot. Johnson said of Thomas, "He may have been our best defensive back a year ago."
OFFENSE: The Yellow Jackets’ offense did what it always does under coach Paul Johnson -- executed one of the nation’s best ground games, this year ranking fourth in the country in rushing offense. Led by veteran quarterback Tevin Washington, Georgia Tech led the ACC with 311.2 rushing yards per game -- 105 yards more than the second-place team, Florida State. Georgia Tech also led the ACC in time of possession (32:58). Georgia Tech finished with 5,911 yards for the season, breaking the single-season school record. Grade: A
DEFENSE: This was the team’s Achilles’ Heel throughout the first half of the season, but the firing of Al Groh midseason turned out to be a good move, as the team made significant improvements in the second half of the season under interim coordinator Charles Kelly. Even more impressive was the fact that Georgia Tech played the USC game without its leading tackler -- junior safety Isaiah Johnson, who was injured -- and played the majority of the Sun Bowl without one of its top defenders – linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu. In the first six games of the season, Tech allowed 13.3 points in the fourth quarter and in overtime, compared to just 3.9 points in the fourth quarter the final eight games of the season. The Yellow Jackets did not allow a fourth-quarter point in each of the final four games (vs. Duke, Georgia, FSU and USC). They shutout both FSU and USC in the second half of those games. Grade: C
OVERALL: What began as a disaster ended as something the team could both be proud of and build upon. Georgia Tech began the season a dreadful 2-4 heading into the bye week, but an improbable appearance in the ACC championship game and Sun Bowl win over USC helped distance the program from its miserable start. At the time, the decision to fire Al Groh midseason seemed questionable, but how the staff handled it internally was key to the team’s resurgence in the second half of the season. Instead of letting it snowball into a complete disaster, Georgia Tech pulled it together and won four of its final six regular-season games. The bowl win was Johnson’s first as head coach of the Jackets. Grade: C+
1. Slow down USC's receivers. The Jackets face their biggest challenge of the season on pass defense, going against some of the most talented receivers in the nation. But keep an eye on Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, who leads the nation with 112 receptions and has eight 100-yard receiving games out of 12 this year. Lee twisted his knee during practice Saturday, and coach Lane Kiffin would only say he is "hopeful" his star will play. On the other side, the Trojans feature Robert Woods, who combined with Lee for 2,493 yards and 25 touchdown catches this season. While Matt Barkley is out with a shoulder injury, there is no doubt starting quarterback Max Wittek will look to his wideouts to help get the offense going. Rod Sweeting and Louis Young are going to have their hands full at the cornerback spot. For safety help, the Jackets take a big loss with starter and leading tackler Isaiah Johnson out. Jemea Thomas will have to take on a bigger role.
2. Get Orwin Smith loose. There is no doubting how explosive Smith can be when healthy. The problem for the Jackets is that he has not been healthy in their past two games, both losses. But he is ready to go against USC and should provide a spark for an offense in need of some big plays. Smith is averaging 9 yards per carry this season, and is on the verge of setting the school record for highest yards per carry average for a career. He leads all players on the team in "big plays," with 13 that have gone between 20-39 yards.
3. Be consistent. Inconsistency on offense and defense has been the biggest problems for Georgia Tech all season. We have rarely seen a full four quarters from this team, a big reason why it sits at 6-7. There is no better opportunity than to play their best in the Sun Bowl, with a chance to finish at .500 and help Paul Johnson get his first bowl win in five tries. USC is less than enthused to be in this game, as several players have caused a stir on Twitter with their comments. Georgia Tech has a huge opportunity in front of it, now we see if the Jackets take advantage.
NCAA leaders in pass interceptions
2011: David Amerson, NC State (13, 1.00/gm)
2010: Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech (9, 0.69/gm)
2008: Trimane Goddard, UNC (7, 0.54); Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest (7, 0.54); Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech (7, 0.54) (tied in total interceptions with 4 others)
2007: Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest (8, 0.62) (tied with Cincinnati's DeAngelo Smith and Troy's Elbert Mack in total interceptions)
Can the ACC keep it up? Here's a look at the returning leaders who had at least four interceptions last year:
Don't forget about Merrill Noel at Wake Forest, who led the league with 21 passes defended. Here's a look at the ACC's spring all-star checklist for 2012 defensive backs:
- Lee Butler, Duke, Sr.
- Ross Cockrell, Duke, Jr.
- Greg Reid, Florida State, Sr.
- Xavier Rhodes, Florida State, Jr.
- Rod Sweeting, Georgia Tech, Sr.
- Louis Young, Georgia Tech, Jr.
- David Amerson, NC State, Jr.
- Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech, Jr.
- Merrill Noel, Wake Forest, So.
- Antone Exum, Virginia Tech, Jr.
What do you think is going to be the biggest strength for the defense this year?
How do you expect your role to change, if at all?
IJ: I feel my role will change in that I need to become more vocal as far as my leadership off the field, pushing my players so we can have a better bondage and build the fire up. Louis Young, so far, he’s the one doing it. He’s the one coming in, stepping up, taking on that role. I’m also along with him trying to build that fire so we can stay amped.
What do you feel like you guys were missing in the second half of the season last year?
IJ: Let me think about this a second. Focus. I would say focus. We lost our focus a little bit. In the first half we did good. In the second half we were just losing it. That’s one thing, like I was saying with Louis and how he’s keeping everybody amped. We didn’t have that. We didn’t have that one to keep everybody amped. Actually, Julian Burnett, he was the one getting everybody amped but we didn’t have any other ones to build that fire. We became more lax and we weren’t pushing ourselves.
Do you feel like the defense made the strides you wanted to last year?
IJ: I feel like we improved from the past season, but there’s always a need for improvement and I feel like we shouldn’t be satisfied with our performance from last year. We made plays, but there’s always the need for improvement. We just can’t be proud of ourselves for having a winning season. Coming into this season, we need to do better, so no, I’m not proud of last season’s performance.
Overall, what do you think the expectations should be for Georgia Tech as far as the Coastal Division race? What do you think you guys are capable of this year?
IJ: We’re capable of winning the division. I see us taking over the division and just coming back, strapping up our helmets and laying people out. We’re going to have a lot of headhunters this season. We’re just ready to play. Even after this past game against Utah, we weren’t ready to stop even though that was a bad outcome. We’re ready.
OFFENSIVE BACK – Tajh Boyd, Clemson, QB, So., 6-1, 225, Hampton, Va.
Boyd completed 22 of 35 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Clemson offense to 35 points and 455 yards of total offense against the nation’s fifth ranked defense. Boyd’s passing yardage total was the fourth highest in Clemson history, the second consecutive week he has had a top-four total. He had 31 yards rushing, giving him 375 yards of total offense, the seventh highest total in Clemson history. He had three touchdowns passing and one rushing for four total. It was the second straight week Boyd had quarterbacked Clemson to a win over a top-20 team.
RECEIVER – Sammy Watkins, Clemson, WR, Fr., 6-1, 200, Fort Myers, Fla.
Watkins had seven receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns in Clemson’s 35-28 win over 11th ranked Florida State. He scored on a 62-yard reception and a 24-yard reception, giving him six touchdown receptions in just four games this year. The six TD receptions are a Clemson freshman record and he is the first freshman in Clemson history to score at least one touchdown in four straight games. Watkins now has had at least 140 receiving yards in consecutive games and he joined Rod Gardner as the only Clemson receivers in school history to accomplish that.
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN – Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech, OG, Jr., 6-3, 300, Lithonia, Ga.
Uzzi and the Yellow Jackets' offensive line helped Georgia Tech accumulate 312 rushing yards against a North Carolina defense that entered the game allowing just 77 yards rushing per offense. Tech did not allow a sack on Saturday en route to producing 496 yards of total offense. Uzzi had nearly 20 knockdowns on Saturday.
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN – James Gayle, Virginia Tech, DE, So., 6-4, 257, Hampton, Va.
Gayle had a big game as the Virginia Tech defense smothered the Marshall running game, limiting the Herd to just 6 yards rushing. Gayle had seven tackles, including 3.0 for loss and 1.5 sacks, to go along with three quarterback hurries to lead the defensive line in the postgame coaches' grading system.
LINEBACKER – Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech, LB, So., 6-3, 235, Washington, D.C.
Attaochu recorded a career-high nine tackles and three sacks in the win over North Carolina. Attaochu also forced a fumble as well as tipping a pass that was eventually intercepted by teammate Isaiah Johnson. Attaochu ended North Carolina’s last gasp when he sacked UNC quarterback Bryn Renner on the final play of the game.
DEFENSIVE BACK – Isaiah Johnson, Georgia Tech, S, So., 6-2, 205, Tyrone, Ga. Johnson ranked second on the team with seven tackles (four solos) and recorded his second interception of the season on Saturday in Tech’s 35-28 conference opener against North Carolina.
ROOKIE – Clint Trickett, Florida State, QB, Fr., 6-2, 180, Tallahassee, Fla.
Trickett made his first career start at No. 21 Clemson and delivered the best performance by a first-time starting quarterback for the Seminoles since Danny Kanell (1993 at Maryland). The redshirt freshman completed 24 of 38 attempts for 336 yards and three touchdowns. He was intercepted once. The son of FSU offensive line coach Rick Trickett tossed a pair of second half touchdown passes -- 30 yards to Rashad Greene and 9 yards to Kenny Shaw -- and threw for 203 yards after intermission as the Seminoles rallied from a 21-10 halftime deficit. He also tossed a 57-yard TD pass to Rodney Smith in the first half. The 336 passing yards were the most by an FSU quarterback this season. Trickett now leads the team with seven TD passes. His performance while filling in for injured starter EJ Manuel was even more impressive when you consider the Seminoles were without three of their top receivers due to injury.
SPECIALIST – T.J. Graham, NC State, WR, Sr., 6-0, 180, Raleigh, N.C.
Graham returned seven kickoffs for 160 yards against Cincinnati in addition to seven catches for 176 yards and two touchdown receptions of 87 and 49 yards. Graham leads the nation in all-purpose yardage with 920, an average of 230 per game. For his career, he has 4,212 all-purpose yards, which ranks ninth in school history. The 336 yards of all-purpose yardage against Cincinnati was the fifth best total in ACC history.