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March 25, 2011

Georgia Tech has different options in '11

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson heads into spring practice in an unfamiliar position. For the first time in nearly a decade, he's attempting to bounce back from a losing season.

Tech dropped five of its final six games last season to finish 6-7, giving Johnson his first losing record since he went 2-10 his debut season at Navy in 2002. Johnson bounced back from that two-win season at Navy to go 43-19 in his final five seasons at the school, and Tech is hoping he can deliver a similar turnaround this time.

Johnson's biggest task involves finding a replacement for former All-ACC quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who ran Tech's option attack each of the past three seasons. Tech got a head start in this process after Nesbitt broke his right arm late last season, forcing him to miss the Jackets' final four games.

Here's a look at where Georgia Tech stands heading into spring practice.

GEORGIA TECH AT-A-GLANCE
Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech look to bounce back from a 6-7 season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Paul Johnson
Last season: 6-7 overall, 4-4 in the ACC Coastal. Lost 14-7 to Air Force in the Independence Bowl.
Spring dates: March 28-April 23.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): WR Stephen Hill, G Will Jackson, RB Roddy Jones, RB Orwin Smith, T Phil Smith, G Omoregie Uzzi.
Defense (5): LB Julian Burnett, E Izaan Cross Jr., E Jason Peters, LB Steven Sylvester, T Logan Walls.
Special teams (1): P Sean Poole.

Positions of strength

Although Georgia Tech must replace All-ACC selection Anthony Allen, the Yellow Jackets remain well-stocked at running back. Orwin Smith rushed for 516 yards on only 53 attempts last season (9.7 yards per carry). Roddy Jones has rushed for 1,388 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past three seasons. Tech also returns all three starters (Izaan Cross Jr., Jason Peters and Logan Wall) from last year's defensive line, though that group must deliver more big plays. Tech ranked 78th nationally in run defense and 101st in sacks last season.

Help is needed

Tech has been searching for a wide receiver since the Denver Broncos took Demaryius Thomas in the first round of last year's NFL draft. The Yellow Jackets' leading receiver last season was Stephen Hill, who caught just 15 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns. No other wide receiver caught more than six passes. The Yellow Jackets must find a quarterback to replace three-year starter and 2009 All-ACC selection Joshua Nesbitt. Tech also remains young at linebacker as the Yellow Jackets continue their adjustment to the 3-4 defense they adopted last season.

3 guys to watch

OLB Jeremiah Attaochu: As a true freshman last season, Attaochu came on strong down the stretch by recording sacks in each of Tech's last two regular-season games. He made his first career start in the Independence Bowl and had six tackles. He likely proved enough last season to emerge as a full-time starter this season.

QB Synjyn Days: This redshirt freshman will compete with junior Tevin Washington for the right to replace Nesbitt. Washington has the edge right now because he started the Yellow Jackets' final four games last season after Nesbitt broke his right arm, but Days arguably has greater upside. Days rushed for 75 touchdowns and threw for 30 more in his prep career at Powder Springs (Ga.) Hillgrove.

SS Fred Holton: After playing primarily on special teams last season, Holton will compete for a starting spot at strong safety this season as a sophomore. Holton is a hard hitter who could team with sophomore Isaiah Johnson to give the Yellow Jackets a solid safety tandem for years to come.

The pressure is on

WR Stephen Hill: The Yellow Jackets were counting on Hill to emerge as their deep threat following Thomas' departure, but he never came close to providing the same kind of big-play ability as his predecessor last season. Hill caught just three passes -- including a 79-yard touchdown against Duke -- in the last five games of the season. Hill is 6 feet 5 and has the height to succeed in this system, but he must become more reliable.

The buzz

The quarterback competition will garner most of the attention at Tech this spring. Do the Yellow Jackets' go with Washington's experience or Days' potential? A new quarterback also might bring some new wrinkles to Tech's offense. The Yellow Jackets made occasional use of the shotgun and the "Wildcat" formation last season, but Nesbitt was at his best when the team stuck to its basic option attack. Perhaps the Jackets will open things up just slightly now that they have a new quarterback. Tech also will continue adapting to the 3-4 defense favored by Al Groh, who took over as the Yellow Jackets' defensive coordinator last season. Tech's first year in the 3-4 didn't make much of a difference statistically, as the Yellow Jackets ranked 57th nationally in scoring defense and 64th in total defense. Tech had ranked 54th in total defense and 56th in scoring defense while using a 4-3 alignment during its 2009 ACC championship season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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