After 20 wins in two seasons, an ACC title and igniting a fan base that at times seemed to sit quietly at football games while waiting for basketball season to start – I know, it seems like a long time ago – Georgia Tech was cast in an unfamiliar role last season.
The Yellow Jackets were the hunted. They didn’t handle it well.
They went 6-7. They lost as many games in year three under Paul Johnson as they had in the first two (20-7). They went from ending the season in the Orange Bowl to ending it in the Independence Bowl. The cover of the Jackets’ 2010 media guide showed two hands clinched together, one wearing a jeweled conference championship ring. The caption warned, “Brace for Impact.” But what followed were 20 fumbles, the most in Division I, and an alarming lack of focus.
So much for being braced.
“I think there was a sense of complacency to a degree,” Johnson said. “Not with everybody. But when you win nine games the first year and then you win 11 games, I think some guys just think, ‘Well, this is going to happen again.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
Georgia Tech opens spring practice Monday. Complacency shouldn’t be an issue because there’s nobody riding a glorious hangover.
Failure and humiliation can be wonderful motivators. If Johnson’s players need any reminders of what happened in 2010, he can use video or his right foot, whatever works best. But apparently they’ve already gotten the message.
“Our guys aren’t dumb, they know what happened,” Johnson said. “We’re light years ahead of where we were last year at this time. We have a lot more togetherness as a group. You can see our focus, our desire. I can look out my office window [onto the practice field] and see guys working, doing things we didn’t do last year. There’s a different aura.”
Hard to imagine, but the Jackets were ranked 16th in the preseason last year. That ranking disappeared somewhere over the skies of Lawrence, Kansas.
They had built-in excuses. Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan and Morgan Burnett all went to the NFL. In the first half of the ninth game at Virginia Tech, quarterback Joshua Nesbitt was lost for the year with a broken arm (the Jackets were 5-3 at the time and the season hadn’t spun out of control yet).
But there were problems far beyond physical deficiencies. Some players didn’t lead. Others didn’t want to be led. It was not the mentally tough team we had seen play in the previous two seasons under Johnson. It seemed almost like the Jackets played with a sense of entitlement.
We saw it early when they lost to Kansas (which the previous week lost 6-3 to Division 1-AA North Dakota State). We saw it later, when they dropped five out of six to end the season, and committed four turnovers in the 14-7 bowl loss to Air Force.
A step back was expected. Not a step into this.
This will be a change. Johnson was the new guy in his first spring at Tech. People were excited. Then came the impressive first two seasons. One had to page back to the days of Heisman, Alexander or Dodd to find a coach who had a better start.
This is the first time his program is being asked to bounce back from misery.
“I think leaders will emerge this year,” Johnson said. “But like I said last year, you’ve got to want to be led, too. And if you’re a leader, you can’t get frustrated if you think somebody’s not going as hard as they can. You have to keep pounding. If a majority of the guys are doing the right thing, you’ll win out and others will follow.”
He’s looking forward to seeing the freshman class that redshirted last season, particularly running back Charles Perkins (”He has a chance to be a special player) and quarterback Synjyn Days (who will compete with the returning Tevin Washington). “We’ve got a lot of young guys we want to take a look at,” he said. “As a general rule, this is when you lay the foundation for the fall camp. Hopefully by the end of spring, we’ll have a pretty good idea what our two-deep is.”
More importantly, he’ll have a pretty good idea where their heads are.
By Jeff Schultz