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Jackets’ Johnson optimistic about upcoming season

ATLANTA — They’ve only had three workouts and won’t go in full pads until next week, but Paul Johnson has a good feeling about this year’s Georgia Tech football team.

Johnson, who is beginning his seventh season at Tech, said this year’s team seems to be closer, more willing to concentrate on the team aspect rather than individual accomplishments. He said this group, which includes 11 starters and 43 returning lettermen, has bought into the Tech concept.

But how will that translate to wins and losses? Johnson wouldn’t take that bait.

“It’s hard to evaluate your team before you play,” Johnson said prior to Saturday’s Fan Day. “Is this our most talented team? Probably not. Will it be our best team? We’ll have to see.”

Georgia Tech is coming off a less-than-satisfying 7-6 season that saw the Yellow Jackets lose to Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl. They were picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division by the media in the recent ACC Kickoff meetings in Greensboro, N.C., a prediction that means little to Johnson.

Johnson pointed out that Tech’s average pick at the meetings over his six years has been 3.9, but their average finish has been 1.8. During Johnson’s tenure, Tech has won or shared the division championship four times and never finished lower than third.

“They haven’t got it right yet,” he said.

Tech will try to change its tone this year by returning to its roots as an option team. The Yellow Jackets got away from the option portion of their attack last year because quarterback Vad Lee never grasped the ability to run the play. Lee transferred after the season after running for 513 yards and throwing for 1,561.

“We got away from our system last year,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be better at what we do.”

Lee’s departure leaves sophomore Justin Thomas as the No. 1 quarterback and Tim Byerly at No. 2. Both are comfortable running the offense, with Thomas getting the edge for quickness and ability to hit the seam, and Byerly noted for his toughness inside.

There are numerous questions that must be answered before the season opener on Aug. 30 against Wofford at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Who will step up at take over for Robert Godhigh as the lead runner at A-back? There are many experienced candidates, including Deon Hill, Synjyn Days, Charles Perkins, Tony Zenon and B.J. Bostic.

How will the offensive line replace stalwarts like center Jay Finch and tackle Will Jackson? Guard Shaq Mason is a start; he’s an all-ACC candidate. Johnson said there may be more athleticism on the line this year, even though there’s less experience.

What about the defensive line, where Adam Gotsis is the only returning veteran? Much is expected out of Shawn Green, but Johnson said the situation will sort itself out. The line did take a blow when it was learned that Kenderius Whitehead would not be able to play this season after transferring from Georgia Military. Whitehead, who originally signed with N.C. State, was considered a potential starter.

There are strongholds, too. The secondary will be bolstered by the return of safety Isaiah Johnson, who missed last season with a knee injury, and Jamal Golden, who was injured in the third game but granted an additional season of eligibility by the NCAA. They join with returnees Demond Smith, D.J. White and Chris Milton to make a formidable group.

Special teams are in good shape, too. Harrison Butker proved himself as a freshman by making 10 of 14 field goals last season. Punter Ryan Rodwell, who played some two years ago, will replace Sean Poole. And Golden is one of the top return men in the country.