Note: I wrote this while still in south Florida to run the day after Georgia Tech's Orange Bowl win, and, while space limitations kept it out of the paper, brain limitations prevented me from posting it online. It's a little dated, but hopefully worth your time.
Uniformed motorcyclists patiently waited astride their bikes, the engines rumbling even as they idled. Outside Sun Life Stadium early on New Year's Day, Georgia Tech players and coaches were wanded and checked in for their charter flight back to Atlanta. Packed full, the Tech equipment truck was closed shut.
The new year was about 70 minutes old. The Yellow Jackets had completed their Orange Bowl triumph over Mississippi State about 80 minutes earlier. As quarterback Justin Thomas, the final player out of the locker room, climbed aboard one of the team buses, there was an air of anticipation for the Tech travel party to get rolling.
Deputies of the Broward County sheriff’s office pulled ahead of Tech’s fleet of buses, leading them out of the stadium parking lot. And with that, the 2014 season began to draw to a close, each mile bringing coaches, players and staff to the resumption of recruiting, the start of offseason workouts and the pursuit of the 2015 ACC championship.
Sept. 3, when the Yellow Jackets will kick off the season against Alcorn State, is but a speck on the horizon. But, even as the 2014 season finished, there was a sense that the Jackets could be in position for continued success.
Prior to the Orange Bowl win, defensive coordinator Ted Roof said that Tech is in “a great spot.” He qualified the assessment by saying that it will be incumbent upon coaches and returning players to develop the leadership that the 2014 team enjoyed. However, “recruiting’s going well,” Roof said. “It’s a really bright future and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Of the 22 starters in the Orange Bowl, 13 will return, including Thomas, four out of five offensive linemen and eight members of the defense. That includes linebacker P.J. Davis, the team’s leading tackler, and rising-star defensive end KeShun Freeman, a freshman.
Further, of the 53 players who took the field against Mississippi State, 40 will be back.
There are holes to fill, starting with all three running back spots and wide receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller. Four of the top five leading rushers – B-backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey and A-backs Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon – will move on. Given his playmaking ability and connection with Thomas, Smelter will be particularly difficult to replace.
However, a number of young players show promise, such as wide receiver Micheal Summers and A-back Dennis Andrews. Further, Tech is putting together what appears to be a solid 2015 signing class. Coaches are hopeful that the 11-win season and the big wins over Mississippi State, Georgia and Clemson will gain the attention of younger prospects. With Johnson’s contract having been extended through 2020, the whispers from rival coaches to recruits questioning his job security have gone quiet.
“Anytime you have stability in a program and you have coaches that recruit the same area for a long period of time, it’s going to help, because (assistant coaches) can build relationship with those (high-school) coaches,” Johnson said.
The fact that Thomas has two more years remaining to play, improve and assert his leadership on the team is a considerable reason for optimism.
“I’m really excited about what he can do in the future,” Johnson said.
A next challenge, though, will be fighting satisfaction and dealing with raised expectations. The desire to avoid a repeated of 2013’s 7-6 record was much of the energy that fueled the Jackets’ commitment to unsupervised workouts, better practice habits and unselfish play. The desire to prove wrong those who picked the Jackets to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal didn’t hurt, either.
Tech will be ranked in the preseason, perhaps in the top 15. When the ACC media gather in July, they almost certainly will pick Tech to win the division, depriving Johnson of his annual opportunity to point out how his team has invariably outperformed the forecast. The Jackets will likely have to find motivation other than a lack of respect or a desire to prove doubters wrong.
“You’re going to have (ACC coaches) spending a lot more time on Georgia Tech than maybe they did last summer,” former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. “They’ve got all the tools they need to be really successful, but they’re not going to sneak up on anybody next year.”
The addition of recruiting staff in recent years figures to continue to augment that operation. Athletic director Mike Bobinski said there is no plan to increase staff, but did mention the possibility of a renovation of the locker room.
“Nothing’s ever guaranteed,” Bobinski said. “You’ve got to go out and earn it every week, every week, but I do think a foundation is being laid for some sustained success.”
Bobinski shares the hope of the most optimistic segments of the Tech fan base.
“The way the postseason plays out now, we’d love to take our shot at the highest possible level,” Bobinski said. “This is a great goal and a great destination every year.”
Prior to the game, Johnson wasn’t quite ready to proclaim the dawn of a new era of Tech football. He made the point that Tech has been competitive in every season he has been coaching the Jackets. He noted, as he often does, how hard it is to win. And, using his team as an example, he pointed out the limited value of predictions.
“Every season’s different, but I think anytime you go through playing in the conference championship and, in our state, if you can beat Georgia and do those things, then it’s on an upward (trajectory),” Johnson said. “Till you lose the next game.”