Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu addresses the media during the ACC Kickoff Day at the Grandover Resort on July 21 in Greensboro, NC. (USA TODAY Sports/Sam Sharpe)
ATLANTA — Every football coach in the country knows the importance of getting off to a strong start each season.
And that task takes on a particularly strong priority at Georgia Tech in 2013 for a number of reasons.
One of those reasons is the Yellow Jackets’ schedule, which includes matchups with four of their five Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division foes following the Aug. 31 season opener with Elon at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
So, head coach Paul Johnson will get a very early read on where his team stands in its drive to head back to the ACC Championship Game for the second straight year, and third time in the last five years.
“Yeah, we can set ourselves up to be in good shape early on, or we can dig ourselves a hole like happened last year,” Johnson said during his Media Day press conference Saturday. “The start of the season’s really important. I think playing two Division I-AA teams (Elon and Alabama State on Nov. 23), which is something you’d rather not do, makes (it) even more important to get off to a good start for bowl eligibility and those kind of things.”
But it is the reason Johnson briefly addressed that may the most important for Tech needing to get off to a good start.
A year ago, the Jackets dug themselves a deep hole with a 2-4 start overall, and 1-3 in ACC play, including an embarrassing 49-28 non-conference loss to Sun Belt Conference member Middle Tennessee State.
They eventually rallied to win four of their last six games, including a 21-7 win over Southern California in the Sun Bowl, and made it back to the ACC title game thanks to postseason bans for Miami and North Carolina.
However, while the Jackets would like to continue the momentum of that late-season surge they don’t want to be in a position where they need one to salvage the season again.
“We had a lot of pain and regret last year, and lessons learned,” said senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, who led Tech with 10 sacks and was sixth on the team with 69 total tackles last year. “There were games that came down to the wire, overtime (losses to Virginia Tech and Miami) that we could’ve won and easily turned our season around. So, we look at that and see that as little things we need to improve on going into camp.”
If the Jackets are to get off to the good start they’re looking for, each of their individual units must also start quickly.
In particular, a defense that has been much maligned over the past few years is looking to establish itself right out of the gate after a tough season that saw major changes with the firing of then defensive coordinator Al Groh and the switch from a 3-4 set to a 4-3.
Now, with former All-American linebacker and Lawrenceville native Ted Roof having returned to Tech as defensive coordinator, the Jackets defense is looking for a fresh new start.
“I definitely think (this season) is a rebirth (for the defense),” said junior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, Tech’s fourth-leading tackler with 79 total stops last year. “We’ve got something to build upon in the future. Right off the bat in the Elon game, we’ve got to establish the foundation going into the next week. We’re going to have to build off it game by game. If we can establish that the first game, I feel like we can have success down the road.”
While the Tech offense has more success despite some occasional inconsistency last year, it has its own set of challenges heading into this season.
Among them is finding a go-to receiver with the loss of the likes of Orwin Smith and Jeff Greene and with Norcross grad Anthony Autry missing this season with a knee injury that cut short a promising start last year.
But perhaps the biggest challenge falls to quarterback Vad Lee, who showed flashes of brilliance by accounting for 596 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns a year ago.
While he is still battling redshirt freshman Justin Thomas and redshirt sophomore Tim Byerly for the starting job, he also said his comfort level with the Jackets’ spread-option attack is as high as it’s ever been.
“I’m very comfortable with the offense,” the 6-foot-1, 215-pound redshirt sophomore said. “I’m very comfortable with what is asked of me to do. I pretty much know all the plays. I guess the big thing now is to understand what all 11 pieces are doing … without thinking about it — just make it natural.
“We’ve got a great group of guys we can put on the field, and I’m just excited to see what we can do.”