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July 24, 2010
Georgia Tech didn't react to its ACC title by resting on its laurels.
After leading the Yellow Jackets to an Orange Bowl bid in his second year on the job, Paul Johnson refused to stand pat and instead fired defensive coordinator Dave Wommack. Former Virginia coach Al Groh replaced Wommack and installed a 3-4 defense as he attempts to upgrade a unit that gave up at least 30 points in six of its 14 games last season.
That's not the only change surrounding this program.
Tech had to replace four of its biggest stars after running back Jonathan Dwyer, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, defensive end Derrick Morgan and strong safety Morgan Burnett bypassed their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft. Morgan and Thomas were first-round picks.
Even Tech's All-ACC quarterback made a subtle change as he prepared for his senior season. The quarterback formerly known as Josh Nesbitt is now going by Joshua Nesbitt, his actual given name.
THE SCHEME: Georgia Tech runs an option attack that typically includes three running backs on the field at one time. The Yellow Jackets ran the ball 82.5 percent of the time last season.
STAR POWER: Joshua Nesbitt has completed fewer than half his pass attempts in each of his three seasons, but he's exceptional at directing the option attack. Nesbitt rushed for 1,037 yards and 18 touchdowns last season to earn first-team All-ACC honors. Nesbitt has shown extraordinary toughness while running inside to gain the tough yards that eventually open up the running backs for breakaways on the outside.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Tech must replace each of its starting guards from last season, which could allow redshirt freshman Will Jackson to step into a major role. Jackson exited spring practice as a second-team left guard, but he still has a chance to work his way into a starting role.
STRONGEST AREA: The Yellow Jackets must replace 2008 ACC offensive player of the year Jonathan Dwyer at running back, but they're still loaded in the offensive backfield. Nesbitt gives Georgia Tech a 1,000-yard rusher at quarterback. Anthony Allen averaged a whopping 9.7 yards per carry last season, while Roddy Jones has rushed for more than 600 yards in each of the past two seasons. The only question in the backfield is the lack of depth behind Nesbitt now that former backup QB Jaybo Shaw has transferred to Georgia Southern.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Demaryius Thomas was basically a one-man receiving corps last season. Thomas racked up 1,154 receiving yards in a run-oriented offense before getting selected by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the NFL draft. He could prove impossible for Georgia Tech to replace. Consider that Thomas compiled 46 receptions and caught eight touchdown passes last season. No other Tech player had more than eight catches or one touchdown reception.
THE SCHEME: Tech is switching from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 under new coordinator Al Groh, the former Virginia coach. The Yellow Jackets should be much more aggressive on defense this season.
STAR POWER: This defense doesn't have many proven performers, but E Jason Peters at least offers plenty of potential. Peters made just 11 tackles as a part-time starter last season, but he performed well this spring and raised hopes he can emerge as Tech's big-play lineman now that the Yellow Jackets must replace standout pass rusher Derrick Morgan, a first-round pick of the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman Isaiah Johnson was an early enrollee who performed well enough in spring practice to make a name for himself. Georgia Tech has plenty of experience in the secondary, but Johnson still should earn plenty of playing time at safety.
STRONGEST AREA: Tech should have enough talent in the secondary to make up for the early departure of SS Morgan Burnett, who turned pro after his junior season. Mario Butler, Dominique Reese, Jerrard Tarrant and Mario Edwards each made at least five starts last season. Butler and Reese are the likely starters at cornerback. Tarrant is moving from cornerback to safety, where he could start alongside Edwards. Tech also welcomes back Cooper Taylor, who had a solid freshman season in 2008 and made three starts last year before being diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a disruption in the heart's normal rhythm.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Georgia Tech is switching to a 3-4 scheme, but most of its linebackers remain best-suited for the 4-3. The Yellow Jackets lack players with the speed or pass-rushing ability to fit the outside linebacker profile for a 3-4 defense.
K Scott Blair returns after going 14-of-20 on field-goal attempts last season. Blair went 4-of-4 in the ACC championship game, with two of his kicks coming from 48 and 49 yards away. Blair has struggled with consistency and could face a challenge from true freshman Justin Moore. Chandler Anderson averaged 42.3 yards per punt last year and helped Georgia Tech rank 17th in net punting. Tarrant ranked 13th in the nation in punt-return average (13.4) last season and scored on two returns. Georgia Tech was just 83rd in the nation in kickoff coverage a year ago.
The schedule could make it tough for the Yellow Jackets to win a second consecutive ACC title. The Yellow Jackets must face North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Clemson on the road, though they do get Miami at home and avoid Florida State. Georgia Tech opens the season with a likely blowout win over South Carolina State, but the Jackets are on the road for three of their next four games. The non-conference schedule includes trips to Kansas and Georgia plus a home game with Middle Tennessee, which looks to be the best team in the Sun Belt.
Early entries hurt Georgia Tech more than any other team in the country. When the 2009 season ended, Tech seemed like a potential top-10 team and ACC favorite. But the Yellow Jackets don't look nearly as strong without Dwyer, Thomas, Morgan and Burnett. A Johnson-coached team should run the ball effectively no matter who's in the backfield. And even without Morgan and Burnett, the defense can't get much worse than it was last season. It's the loss of Thomas that stings the most. Georgia Tech couldn't throw the ball well with Thomas in the lineup. How inaccurate will Nesbitt be without having the luxury of throwing the deep ball to his favorite target? Tech still should win at least eight games, but a second ACC title in a row seems unlikely.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.