Johnson wants Tech on its guard for opener against Elon

ATLANTA — With two other season openers involving traditional powers from the ACC and SEC capturing most of the attention around town and in the media this week, little has been discussed about Georgia Tech’s kickoff game against Elon.

But while few outside the Tech program have discussed the Yellow Jackets’ matchup with the Phoenix, which kicks off today at noon at Bobby Dodd Stadium, coach Paul Johnson and his staff are taking it very seriously.

“They’re out of the Southern Conference, which is one of the better FCS conferences in the country,” Johnson said of Elon. “They play good competition. It ought to be a good challenge to see where we are as a football team. I think it’s as much about Georgia Tech as it is about Elon in the opening game and trying to see exactly where we are.”

Indeed, today’s game will say at least a little about Tech and how it is progressing in a number of areas from last year’s 7-7 campaign — from quarterback Vad Lee’s first game as the entrenched starter, to which receivers step up in the wake of injuries and suspensions, to how the defense reacts in its first game with Ted Roof back as defensive coordinator.

However, as Johnson points out, Elon (3-8 last season) will have something to say about those subjects, too. Especially a defense that returns nine starters from a year ago, including massive (5-foot-10, 302-pound) junior defensive tackle Dustin Ruff and junior linebacker Jonathan Spain, who posted a team-high 120 combine tackles and assists last season, along with 2 1/2 sacks and two quarterback hurries.

“They play hard, which is a good start. If you do that, you’ve always got a chance,” Johnson said of the Phoenix. “Their middle linebacker (Spain) is a good player. I think he could play on (the FBS) level. … I think he’s a really good player. Their (free) safety (Chandler Wrightenberry) has been pretty productive.

“They’ve got two 300-pound tackles inside. So, it’ll be a challenge. It’s not like you’re lining up against somebody who doesn’t have any players.”

Sometimes, opening the season against an FCS team like Elon can come with the risk of underestimating one’s opponent, especially for team in Tech’s position, with ACC Coastal Division foes in each of its next four games.

But Johnson expects to get an Elon team that is particularly geared up to knock off a BCS conference foe, and has instilled in the Jackets to match that intensity.

“This morning, I was looking over (Elon’s) roster and they’ve got a starting defensive end (Jay Brown) that went to Riverwood High School (in Sandy Springs),” Johnson said. “You don’t think he’s going to be excited to come back, because Georgia Tech didn’t recruit him. He’s going to have a chance to come in here and say, ‘You guys made a mistake.’ So, they’ll be excited to come play.

“The No. 1 goal for Saturday is to make sure we win the game. All you have to do is look back at the Appalachian State-Michigan game (from 2007). There’s plenty of things you can point to there. I know from coaching at Georgia Southern, those guys are going to come in excited, thinking they can win. It’s not a best of seven. It’s a one-game deal.”