Aug. 30, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Paul Johnson sat in front of the microphones on Tuesday morning for the 10th time at Georgia Tech, the 21st overall, taking questions about the starting lineup for his season opener.
With depth chart in front of him, everything seemed pretty clear. Except, of course, at quarterback, kicker and backup B-back.
Like many coaches, Johnson does a terrific impression of Gerry Spence when it comes to raising reasonable doubt with his first depth chart of the season, going as far as four-deep at quarterback and potentially B-back. He’s certainly not alone — Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has not named starters at quarterback, two wide receiver positions, left guard, free safety, kicker or long snapper ahead of Monday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between the Yellow Jackets and Vols at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Whenever we feel like announcing it. Our guys know who’s going to play and I probably know who’s going to play,” Johnson said of the quarterback quartet. “I might send it out on Twitter here in a day or two, who knows? We’ll get through a couple more practices and it’ll be one of these four guys, I promise.
“I think I could call the game for any of them,” he said, adding with a laugh. “We may play all four of them in the first game, who knows. They may be running in plays. Replace the A-back.”
It’s the same case at kicker.
“We probably know who we’re going to use there, too, but we’ll kick right up until the time we play,” Johnson said. “Those guys have worked hard during camp. Brenton [King]’s been injured a little bit but he’s back kicking.”
The other specialists are set, with true freshman Pressley Harvin III handling punting duties, sophomore Nathan Cottrell the primary kickoff returner (he’s backed up by senior J.J. Green), and junior Brad Stewart doing punt returns, with junior Qua Searcy behind him. Junior Casey Wilson will start at long snapper, with freshman Jerrod Abee next — ideally they hope the last time they’ll see their names mentioned in anything media-related this season.
Tech still offers some suspense at B-back, even though Benson has been tabbed the starter. Johnson has high expectations for him, comparing him favorably to Jonathan Dwyer, his first B-Back at Tech, who earned 2008 ACC Player of the Year.
“(Benson) had a good spring practice, we recruited him to play that position. He’s 215 [pounds], he ran a 10.6 [seconds] 100 meters in high school. He’s probably the fastest guy we’ve had at B-back since Jon Dwyer and may be faster than Jon,” Johnson said. “Now how is he going to play and react? I don’t know. I think he’s got a good skill set for it. Will he play fast and tough? We’ll see. If not, then one of those other guys will play. It’s like at every position. He’s got the opportunity. What’s he going to do with it?”
There are no worries about Benson or anyone else being under pressure to replace last season’s leading rusher, Dedrick Mills. It’s historically been a high-yardage position and Johnson expects that continue regardless of who gets the ball.
“We played two guys [at B-back] a year ago [Mills and Marcus Marshall]. One of them had 700 yards, the other had 700 yards, roughly. The guy this year will have that much or more. That’s the nature of what it is,” he said. “Certainly the guys who played last year were good players. [But] they were unknown when they played a year ago.”
A better-known quantity, and one upon which Johnson similarly places high hopes, is on the offensive line. For Benson and starting A-backs Searcy and Green to run the ball, they will need to that unit to play well. While left tackle Jahaziel Lee, left guard Parker Braun and center Kenny Cooper are true sophomores, all three got plenty of reps last year.
“I feel really good about the first group of guys,” he said. “I said a year ago, those three guys are probably as good or better athletically than anybody we’ve had there. Now they’re going to be playing against big, physical guys again. If those three can’t hold their own, we’re going to be in a world of trouble. I think they’ll hold their own.”
Depth up front will be a key.
“There are probably six linemen that would play first, we could roll them in some certain ways,” Johnson said. “The goal is to get to eight. When we get Andrew [Marshall] back [from injury] that will be seven, so right now we’re still searching for eight.”
The Jackets boast much more experience on the defensive side of the ball, with a front line and secondary boasting plenty of experience.
Defensive end KeShun Freeman is a four-year starter on the defensive line, leading a group of defensive linemen that boasts 47 combined career starts between Freeman and junior tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson. While they don’t own any starts, ends Anree Saint-Amour and Antonio Simmons combined for five sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss in relatively limited playing time last season.
At linebacker, junior middle linebacker Brant Mitchell started all 13 games last season and hasn’t missed a game in two years. He’s flanked by senior Terrell Lewis, who hasn’t missed a game in three years, and junior Victor Alexander, who hasn’t missed one in two years, although they are light on starts (Lewis has three and Alexander doesn’t have any). They’ll be pushed by a trio of freshmen — true freshmen Bruce Jordan-Swilling and T.D. Roof and redshirt freshman Jakob Brashear.
The entire starting secondary returns from last season — senior SS Corey Griffin, junior FS A.J. Gray, senior CBs Step Durham and Lance Austin and senior nickel back Lawrence Austin.
“There’s a little more experience [on defense] so, early on, hopefully, we’ll play well over there,” Johnson said. “I think coming into this game, us and Tennessee are both very similar on offense, in that they’re breaking in a lot of new faces and new guys. But every time you think it’s going to be a low-scoring game, it ends up 50-49. If you think it’s going to end up 50-49, it can end up being 6-3. So you don’t know.”
What Johnson does know is Tennessee represents a quality opponent. The No. 25/24 Vols will the second ranked team Johnson’s played in an opener at Tech — the Yellow Jackets lost 20-17 in overtime at No. 16/20 Virginia Tech to open 2012 (ironically, on Labor Day evening).
“They’ve got good skill and an offensive line that’s big and physical,” said Johnson, who is looking for his fourth-straight win against the SEC, his fifth-straight win in a season opener and his ninth victory in 10 openers as Tech’s head coach. “The running back, [junior John] Kelly, is a really good player and I’m sure they’re going to try to get him the ball behind that big offensive line. They were very productive on offense a year ago.”
He pulled up on getting too specific on the opposition.
“I’m not going to single anybody out because then I’ll (tick) one of them off,” he said with a smile. “They have a lot of good players.”
Monday night’s game also will mark the second-straight season the Jackets have opened on a neutral site. They topped Boston College, 17-14, in Dublin, Ireland last year.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, obviously, is a lot closer to home than Aviva Stadium, but also is bigger (capacity of 71,000 vs. 40,000-plus) and promises to be louder.
Johnson doesn’t expect volume to be an issue.
“I’m hoping half of the fans will be ours. So it’s not like playing completely on the road,” he said. “It’s not going to be much louder than Clemson or Blacksburg [Va.] or those places. We’re always prepared for that. We can go to the silent count if we have to.”