KeShun Freeman doesn’t want to go through 2015 again, certainly not as a senior. In 2015, the Georgia Tech defensive end was a sophomore, his team enjoying a preseason Top 25 ranking and dreams of a College Football Playoff berth after its 11-win season that was capped with an Orange Bowl win.
For various reasons, however, the Yellow Jackets flopped, finishing 3-9.
That was why Freeman stood in front of his team earlier this summer, giving teammates a PowerPoint presentation on Tech’s history of often faltering after successful seasons.
“This is (coach Paul Johnson’s) 10th year and in this time, we won here, we lost after that, we won here, pieced these two winning seasons together, lost there,” Freeman said, summarizing his speech. “We’ve got to break this cycle.”
The most egregious examples in Johnson’s tenure are the 2010 and 2015 seasons, when the Jackets followed two of Tech’s best seasons in the post-Bobby Dodd era with records of 6-7 and 3-9. In both seasons, there were other legitimate reasons for the drop-off besides the easy explanation of complacency. Still, Tech coaches and players are being mindful to prevent satisfied attitudes from ruining the coming season after their nine-win season in 2016 that included road wins at Virginia Tech and Georgia.
“We’ve talked about it,” Johnson said Friday at the ACC Kickoff. “I’ve talked to them about it, that now’s the time to put pedal to the metal, not to sit back on your laurels. You don’t get to carry any over.”
The 2017 team is different from the 2010 and 2015 teams in one notable way. It has lost key pieces from the 2016 roster, but not nearly in the numbers that the 2010 and 2015 teams did.
After Tech won the ACC in 2009, defensive end Derrick Morgan (2009 ACC defensive player of the year, first-round draft pick), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (2009 All-American, first-round pick), safety Morgan Burnett (2008 All-American, third-round pick) and B-back Jonathan Dwyer (2008 ACC player of the year, sixth-round pick) were among the departures. After the 2014 season, nearly all of the key offensive skill players besides Thomas graduated, as well as All-American guard Shaquille Mason and All-ACC linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, a four-year starter.
From last year’s team, Tech did graduate its biggest star, quarterback Justin Thomas, two critical defenders (defensive tackle Patrick Gamble and linebacker P.J. Davis) and specialists Harrison Butker and Ryan Rodwell, but returns 16 starters.
Further, key injuries derailed the 2010 and 2015 teams. Johnson often has said he has not experienced a plague of injuries in his career like the one in 2015. Time will tell if the 2017 team can avoid the same fate.
Also, the forecast for the 2017 team is not nearly as rosy as it was for the 2010 and 2015 teams, in part because 2016 wasn’t as glorious as 2009 and 2014. The Jackets almost certainly won’t start the season in the Top 25, as those teams did. But they are cast as a strong contender for the Coastal title, which is better than the usual treatment.
Regardless, Tech’s DNA seems to include the underdog gene. Roddy Jones, a former team captain, offered a theory in a 2015 AJC article that Tech players often arrive on campus having been overlooked by other power-conference schools and generate motivation from that slight, and perhaps can have difficulty manufacturing drive when they’re getting showered with praise.
The 2014 team’s success, for instance, was borne in part from the frustration of back-to-back seven-win seasons. Those Jackets were picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division.
“We kind of like playing with a chip on our shoulder,” Johnson said Friday. “We’re much better when we do that.”
In fact, “chip on the shoulder” is defined on a poster in the locker room, one of several terms that were officially part of the 2016 team’s vocabulary. (It begins “Having an edge; something to prove; vengeance.”)
Expectations of success often have been more difficult to attain. Since Dodd’s retirement after the 1966 season, Tech has been in the AP preseason poll eight times, including 2010 and 2015. The Jackets have finished unranked in five of those seasons. They finished with a higher ranking than the initial projection once (2009).
Hence, Freeman’s presentation, prepared with the help of safety Corey Griffin, complete with charts and video clips. It was part of “Team Focus Time,” a series of informal team meetings that Freeman and others instituted last offseason.
“Every time we have a good season, we end up with a bad season,” wide receiver Ricky Jeune said. “So we’re trying to break that trend.”
To Jeune, simply having an awareness of the potential pitfall of complacency will help.
“Just knowing in the back of your mind, like, Hey, we’re not going out like that,” said Jeune, a senior. “We’re going to have a good season.”
If it takes having a chip on their shoulder, the Jackets have them. They’ve lost three in a row to North Carolina and two consecutive to Clemson, Miami and Pittsburgh. For all the good feeling gained from last season, they still were only 4-4 in the ACC.
At the ACC Kickoff event, Freeman and Jeune both reported that the team has been put through highly intense summer workouts led by strength-and-conditioning coach John Sisk. A week ago, quarterback Matthew Jordan, who is on track to be ready for the start of preseason camp after a foot injury in spring practice, said the workouts this summer have been the hardest since he has been at Tech.
“He’s really turning it up,” said Jordan of Sisk.
Summer workouts, messages and awareness are a start. Truer indications of the Jackets’ willingness to put 2016 behind will come when camp starts in early August.
“It’s all about the commitment,” Johnson said. “What are you willing to be committed (to)? What you willing to give up to achieve those things?”