ATLANTA -- The biggest question surrounding Georgia Tech's defense of last year's Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 2010 was how it will deal with the loss of NFL draft picks Jonathan Dwyer and Demaryius Thomas on offense and Derrick Morgan and Morgan Burnett on defense.
Through last spring and the first three days of preseason practice, coach Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets believed they could answer that question in just two words as they met the media Saturday.
Those words are experience and depth.
"I think we've got a good nucleus of players back," Johnson said. "A lot of people want to talk about the guys we lost, and we lost some very good football players. But I'd rather focus on the 15 starters we have coming back. I think for the first time since I've been here, we've got a really large senior class. ... Last year's team had, I think, six scholarship seniors and not many who played.
"I think we have depth. We've got good competition at most every position. That usually makes you better."
To be exact, the Yellow Jackets welcome back 20 seniors, and among that group are some players every bit as dynamic as the ones they lost to the draft from last year.
Anthony Allen, who averaged 9.7 yards in his 64 carries last year, moves back to his natural B-back position vacated by Dwyer.
On defense, linebacker Brad "Gladiator" Jefferson retuns after posting a team-best 95 combined tackles and assists last year.
And then there's Joshua Nesbitt.
The 6-foot-1, 218-pound senior from Greensboro has arguably been the heart and soul of Tech's spread-option offense as the starting quarterback in each of Johnson's first two seasons of implementing the system.
And with him 100 percent healthy after offseason ankle surgery, both he and Johnson believe the best may be yet to come.
"I'm prepared for this to be my best year," said Nesbitt, who ranks seventh on Tech's career total offense list with 4,671 yards and is on the preseason watch lists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm and Davey O'Brien awards. "I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life physically and, I think, mentally."
Still, given some of the preseason perceptions in the media -- the Jackets were picked to finish third in the ACC's Coastal Division at last week's ACC Kickoff event and were No. 17 in the Associated Press' preseason national poll after playing in the Orange Bowl last year -- that they are set to take a step back after losing such talent.
However, despite losing their leading rusher and receiver from a year ago, the Jackets believe they will more than make up for it with the sheer number of player who can contribute.
"Those guys (Dwyer and Thomas) were good. I mean, they're in the NFL now. They're great," Allen said. "But I feel like this team right now feels more like a team because of the competition (at each position)."
That includes the defense, where a change to a 3-4 alignment has changed the dynamics of a unit looking to rebound after finishing sixth in the ACC in scoring defense and seventh in total defense last year.
And Jefferson believes that the quality of depth can make that happen despite losing playmakers like Morgan and Burnett.
"This year, with a new defense, there's a lot of people who fit in this defense," Jefferson said.
Perkins remains patient
One area in which Tech is the deepest is at both running back positions, which means one of the more heralded members of the incoming freshman class -- Collins Hill grad Charles Perkins -- may have to be patient.
While Johnson has liked what he's seen from the 2009 Daily Post Offensive Player of the Year ever since he enrolled at Tech in January after graduating early, the depth at both A-back and B-Back is such that he is in no hurry to rush him into the lineup.
"Charles Perkins is going to be really good," Johnson said. "I thought he might have been the best (high school) back in (metro) Atlanta when he came in, and I haven't seen anything to change my mind.
"He's going to be a good player, but it's just a question of where are you going to put him? You've got Anthony Allen and Lucas (Cox) and Richard Watson and Preston Lyons. So, that might free us to save a year (of eligibility) for Charles (by redshirting him). He's playing A-back right now because whether or not we're going to play him (this year). But you've got the same deal there. You've got a bunch of guys who've played."
That's fine with Perkins, who has been working primarily at A-back, though his long-term future may be at B-back.
However, he also intends to try to make it impossible for Johnson to keep him off the field by working hard during preseason practice.
"I'm trying to go out there every day trying to earn a spot," Perkins said. "I want to play, but (a redshirt year) is just another year for me to get bigger and stronger and faster."