Tech has handle on opening-night foe

ATLANTA -- The beginning of each new season brings plenty of challenges for any college football team.

But Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson can't help but note how different the challenges are for this year's opener -- Saturday's game with South Carolina State at Bobby Dodd Stadium -- than the first two under his watch.

"It's different in that our opponent, we have a little better idea of what they're going to be," Johnson said during his first weekly press conference of the 2010 season Tuesday. "I think it might be, not might be, it's probably a step up (in the level of competition). And we're a lot better football team. A lot.

"I had no idea two years ago on that Thursday night what we were going to see. I've got a pretty good idea, I think, what we'll see Saturday. (But) I've got to see it."

The Yellow Jackets began each of the last two seasons against Jacksonville (Ala.) State, a well-regarded Division I-AA program, and defeated them by an average of 23 points.

As solid as the Gamecocks were, going on to win eight games each of those seasons, Johnson may be correct in his assessment that South Carolina State might be a step up in competition.

The Bulldogs (10-2) are coming off their second straight Mid-East Athletic Conference championship and finished last season ranked No. 8 in the final Division I-AA rankings after making the national playoffs.

They come into this season ranked as high as No. 11 in some polls, and feature as many as 13 players selected to the preseason All-MEAC team.

Seven of those players are first-teamers, including the preseason Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Malcolm Long and four offensive linemen.

So, Johnson is imploring the Jackets to take South Carolina State seriously, and believes they will.

"I can watch South Carolina State on tape and see that they have a good team," Johnson said. "They've kind of dominated their conference for the last little bit. So, we know they've got pretty good players.

"When you watch the tape, I'm sure they've got our guys' attention. Certainly, they've got some guys that can play at Georgia Tech."

But to Johnson, the biggest difference between this season opener and the previous two are the players who currently are playing at Georgia Tech.

While the Jackets have some key losses to replace -- including four NFL draft picks preparing for their rookie seasons -- they still have plenty of experienced weapons back from a team that has won 20 games over Johnson's first two seasons.

Chief among those experienced players is quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who is being promoted by Tech's athletic department as a Heisman Trophy candidate, plus B-back Anthony Allen and linebacker Brad Jefferson.

More importantly to Johnson is the depth this year's Tech team has compared to his first two.

There is so much, he said, that the depth chart released in this week's media notes could still change dramatically before Saturday.

"I think the guys who were competing when there is good competition, they'll play," Johnson said. "It's the start of a season. Everybody wants to start and everybody wants to the be the first guy to run out there.

"That's going to change during the year. It would be unbelievable if the 22 that started the first game started every game all year. Everybody will have a chance to play. The guys who play the best will end up being the starters the next week. I'd much rather have some competition and have some depth than not have any."

One area where depth is a concern for the Jackets is on the defensive line.

Injuries to a few key players during preseason practice, like defensive linemen Logan Walls and Emmanuel Dieke, along with the new 3-4 alignment, had even raised the possibility of true freshman Shawn Green seeing action after he was listed at No. 2 on the depth chart last week.

With Walls' return, the Grayson grad has returned to No. 3 in the defensive tackle slot, and Johnson is not as concerned it will become necessary to burn his redshirt.

"I wouldn't put too much stock in those depth charts," Johnson said. "We're getting Shawn ready in case, but we won't make that decision until we see where everybody's at. ... We think that Shawn's going to be a really good player. Whether he plays this year or not is still up in the air."