Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson’s fifth season played out hardly as anyone could have predicted, with two overtime losses in the first four games, the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh, an appearance in the ACC title game after a 2-4 start and a bowl-game win over preseason No. 1 USC.
The Yellow Jackets head into the offseason with the momentum of the bowl win, their first after seven consecutive bowl defeats, and Monday’s news that outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu will return for his senior season. Johnson spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the season past and the offseason to come.
Q: You ran some four-wide stuff out of the shotgun at the Sun Bowl.
A: We’ve done it before. We do it every time we get in the (shotgun) pretty much most of the time.
Q: I imagine you might do more of that?
A: We’re going to look to expand some of that with (quarterbacks) Vad (Lee) and Justin (Thomas).
Q: How is Justin’s arm?
A: I think he’s good, but we’ll see. He’s got a strong arm.
Q: Could you see more of the passing attack that you ran at Hawaii?
A: It’s possible. You’ll play to your personnel a little bit. We’ll expand some of the stuff we’re doing in the “gun” but we’re not going to totally get out of what we do.
Q: How much does beating USC remove some of the bad taste of the season?
A: I was just happy for the seniors and for the guys to win a bowl game. There’s so many misnomers or myths and I guess they’re not really myths until you do it. But we were 2-2 in bowl games at Navy and it’s like the thing about it here is, we had a couple we should have won and we didn’t.
We should have won the Sun Bowl a year ago and we didn’t get it done. So the thing that was good for them, I think, and to me, it was important to finish 7-7. It’s better than the alternative. You finish on a positive and you’ve got that to work off of all offseason and into the spring.
Q: Would you describe it as a relief?
A: It’s probably a relief to some of the players or whatever. You don’t have to hear about (the losing streak) until we lose the next one.
Q: How do you evaluate the season?
A: It wasn’t as good as we would have liked, clearly, but I think we dug ourselves out of a hole. We got into a huge hole when we started 2-4 and we played some good football teams. I don’t know if people realize, we played 10 teams that were bowl eligible. They can talk about strength of schedule all you want but when it’s over is how you decide strength of schedule.
Q: Could the season have turned out differently if you had beaten Virginia Tech in the opener?
A: Who knows? I think maybe. I think had we won that game or had we beaten Miami either one, (it could have). You’d like to think if you win the Miami game, maybe you don’t lose the next one but that would be taking away from Middle Tennessee, who played their butt off. They played hard.
Q: How do you evaluate how the offense played?
A: If you look at stats, I think we averaged 40 points a game in the league. The last three games weren’t as good as you’d like, but we also played three pretty good teams (Georgia, Florida State and USC). I get a kick out of people, they talk about, “Well, when you play really good (teams, you don’t score as much).” Well, why the hell do you think they’re good teams?
You should be more concerned if you play a team that’s giving up 40 points a game and you score 10. When you play a team that’s given up 10 and you score 15 … But we can play better. Certainly we need to. We didn’t finish the way we would have liked.
Q: Is there anything you can put your finger on in those games?
A: We just didn’t finish drives the last part. I think you have to give who you’re playing credit, too. We played against a lot of good players.
Q: B-back David Sims came on strong at the end.
A: I thought he ran hard the last two games, really hard.
Q: It must be encouraging to have him back for next season with two years of experience and maybe healthier.
A: It’s like we said last year. I think we got O.K. production out of the position when you add all the guys together. But we need to have more explosive plays out of that position, bigger plays.
Q: Have you decided if you’ll return coach Dave Walkosky to a special teams-only position (after he took over the defensive line after Groh’s firing)?
A: Right now, the plan is more than likely, he’s going to go back to special teams. That’s what we hired him for. It’s not until we firm everything up. This time of year, I’ve learned through the years, you never know what’s going to happen. You’re one phone call away from losing a guy or two or three guys. You just don’t know.
Q: Is inside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days as good as he looked against USC?
A: He played really, really well in the bowl game. That’s the best game he’s played. He was physical. He’s got a bright future. He’s got all the tools. He’s big, he can run, he can be physical. I’m excited about him. I’m excited about a lot of the young guys over there. I think we’ve got some good young players.
Q: Will wide receivers Anthony Autry and Travin Henry (both rehabilitating knee injuries) and safety Fred Holton (lower-leg surgery) be ready for spring practice?
A: Anthony should be good to go. Travin should be good to go. They (and Holton) should all be good for the spring.
Q: What about safety Isaiah Johnson (lower-body injury suffered in bowl practice)?
A: Not spring. He had major surgery. Hopefully we’ll get him ready for fall.
Q: What was your reaction to the ACC going 4-2 in bowl games?
A: I think that you have some conference pride. You’re also worried more about yourself. I think it’s good anytime the league can win. There’s no question there’s a media frenzy for a couple of the other leagues.
Q: With 15 commitments, are you still trying to add to the recruiting class?
A: We’ve got most of our guys committed. We still may be able to add a guy or two.
Q: What are some areas that you want to dig into and improve?
A: I think we need to strive to be way more consistent defensively than what we’ve been. If you just call a spade a spade, we weren’t very good, or at least consistent. We’ve played (some good) games. You can say the same thing on offense. We weren’t consistent.
Q: After five seasons, is the team in the position you’d want it?
A: You’re always looking for better players to help yourself but I think we’re in position from a depth-wise (perspective) and that kind of thing, numbers-wise. We’ve got to create a few more or find or help develop a few more marquee guys.
I’ve said from the start that I think there’s no question 1 through 85, the roster is far better than when I got here. If you (look at) 1 through 7 or 8, I don’t know. So that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to improve that 1 through 8 because I know 1 through 85 is better.
Q: Is that simply a matter of recruiting?
A: I think some of it’s (being) young. Did anybody know Bay-Bay (Demaryius) Thomas was going to be that good? I mean, clearly not. He redshirted his freshman year, didn’t he? Or Michael Johnson. Vance Walker. Those guys weren’t highly recruited guys. People can rewrite history all they want, but they just weren’t. They came in and they worked their tail off and they became great players. Who’s to say that some of the younger guys aren’t going to do that?
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog