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July 31, 2009
THE SCHEME: Call it an option, call it the spread or just call it Paul Johnson's offense. Just make sure to call it run-oriented. Georgia Tech ran the ball 80 percent of the time last season and typically operated out of three-back sets.
STAR POWER: RB Jonathan Dwyer developed into one of the nation's most dominant running backs by the end of the 2008 season. In his final four regular-season games, Dwyer rushed for 574 yards and seven touchdowns on only 65 carries against bowl-bound Florida State, North Carolina, Miami and Georgia. He finished the season with 1,395 yards and 12 touchdown runs, making him the lone ACC player to average at least 100 rushing yards per game. He also averaged 7 yards per carry and was named the ACC player of the year.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: He's walking into a talent-laden backfield, but Louisville transfer Anthony Allen figures to have at least some impact on Georgia Tech's rushing attack. Allen rushed for a total of 1,102 yards and 20 touchdowns during his two seasons at Louisville. Georgia Tech's lack of proven receivers could allow redshirt freshmen Daniel McKayhan and Quentin Sims or even true freshman Stephen Hill to challenge for playing time.
WATCH FOR THEM TO EMERGE: OTs Austin Barrick - a converted tight end - and Nick Claytor moved into the starting lineup late last season after injuries knocked out Andrew Gardner and David Brown. Barrick and Claytor were the starting tackles when Georgia Tech gained a combined 946 yards in victories over Miami and Georgia. Now that Gardner and Brown have completed their college careers, Barrick and Claytor enter the 2009 season as the likely starting tackles. Georgia Tech's chances of matching its 2008 success on offense hinge at least in part on this tandem's effectiveness.
STRONGEST AREA: Oklahoma may be the only team in the country that can match Georgia Tech's depth and talent at running back. Dwyer is the reigning ACC player of the year. Roddy Jones gained an astounding 8.5 yards per carry last season. Lucas Cox is an outstanding blocker who also averaged 7.7 yards per carry last year. Allen's production at Louisville indicates he should make Georgia Tech's rushing attack even stronger. The combination of runners is even more impressive if you throw in QB Josh Nesbitt, who rushed for 693 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: As well as Georgia Tech runs the ball, the Yellow Jackets must offer at least the threat of a passing game to keep defenses honest. Nesbitt completed just 43.9 percent of his attempts last season with five interceptions and only two touchdowns. He has to do better than that. Nesbitt probably won't improve his accuracy until he has more capable targets. Demaryius Thomas had 39 of the Jackets' 74 receptions last season.
THE SCHEME: Georgia Tech essentially runs a 4-2-5 to make the most of its depth in the secondary.
STAR POWER: SS Morgan Burnett tied for the NCAA lead last season with seven interceptions, the highest single-year total by a Georgia Tech player since 1991. Burnett had more interceptions last season than the entire Georgia Tech defense had collected a year earlier. He also finished the season with 93 tackles, giving him 24 more than any of his teammates.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Georgia Tech needs to find pass rushers as it attempts to rebuild a defensive line that lost three of its four starters from last season. The lack of depth could create an opportunity for DE Emmanuel Dieke. The 6-foot-6, 243-pound true freshman from College Park (Ga.) North Clayton High enrolled in time for spring practice and turned some heads.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Cooper Taylor made just three starts last season as a true freshman, yet he still ranked second on the team with 69 tackles. Taylor also made arguably the biggest play of the year when he forced a fumble near the goal line in the final minute to preserve a 31-28 victory over Florida State. After playing safety last season, Taylor is moving to Georgia Tech's "wolf"' position, a hybrid of the strongside linebacker and nickel back. Georgia Tech is moving to a 4-2-5 in part to get Taylor, Burnett and safety Dominique Reese on the field at the same time.
STRONGEST AREA: Georgia Tech has four returning starters in the secondary. The Jackets are particularly well stocked at the safety positions. Burnett was a Rivals.com second-team All-American last season. Reese showed his ball-hawking skills by picking off passes in three straight games midway through last season. Georgia Tech's safety corps looks even stronger if you add Taylor's name to the mix.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The lack of experience in the front four is a major concern. The return of E Derrick Morgan gives the Jackets at least one proven pass rusher, but the interior of the line offers cause for alarm. Georgia Tech simply doesn't have any proven candidates at that spot. Contenders for starting spots include former defensive end Jason Peters, Ben Anderson, Logan Walls and redshirt freshman T.J. Barnes.
Scott Blair returns as Georgia Tech's combination kicker-punter, but he will have to perform better to hold on to both jobs all season. Blair went 12-of-19 on field-goal attempts last season, but he missed all six of his tries from at least 40 yards. He also missed two extra-point attempts and averaged 38.9 yards per punt. Jones averaged 23.6 yards per kickoff return last season.
After orchestrating one of the greatest turnarounds in recent college football history at Navy, Johnson showed last year that his option attack also could succeed in a major conference. Georgia Tech ranked fourth in the nation in rushing and ended a seven-year losing streak to Georgia in Johnson's first season. Johnson has won nearly three-quarters of his games and owns a career record of 116-43 in 12 seasons as a head coach. Tom Osborne is the only person to win more games in his first 12 years as a head coach. Johnson's entire staff from last season returns intact.
Georgia Tech's schedule could boost its chances of reaching the ACC Championship Game. Virginia Tech and North Carolina - the two teams most likely to battle the Jackets for the Coastal Division title - both must come to Georgia Tech. The bad news is that Georgia Tech also has a Thursday night game at Miami and a trip to Florida State, the likely preseason favorite in the Atlantic Division. The Jackets' fortunes could be determined by a midseason stretch in which they play four of five games on the road. Georgia Tech travels to Mississippi State and Florida State, returns home to face Virginia Tech, then goes back on the road for dates with Virginia and Vanderbilt. For the second consecutive season, Georgia Tech opens with a Jacksonville State team led by former LSU quarterback Ryan Perrilloux. The rest of Georgia Tech's home schedule features plenty of glamour: Clemson, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia.
Georgia Tech has plenty of reason to feel good about itself heading into the 2009 season, but that Chick-fil-A Bowl fiasco against LSU did raise a few concerns. It even raised the hopes of ACC rivals hoping that an extra year to prepare for the option would give them a better idea of how to stop it. That cause for optimism seems misplaced. Georgia Tech will continue to have one of the nation's top rushing attacks because of the effectiveness of the system and the explosiveness of the men running this scheme. If the Jackets establish some semblance of passing attack, it will only make them that much more dangerous. The questions are on the other side of the ball. Georgia Tech spent last season controlling the clock against the opponents. If they don't shore up their front four on defense, the Jackets could spend the 2009 season having opponents control the clock against them. The guess here is that Georgia Tech wins nine or 10 games and falls just short of winning the Coastal Division title.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.