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Yellow Jackets open practice

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech opened practice on Thursday with 14 returning starters from its 2009 ACC championship team but big losses at some key positions.

The Yellow Jackets had four key juniors enter this year's NFL draft: receiver Demaryius Thomas, running back Jonathan Dwyer, safety Morgan Burnett and defensive end Derrick Morgan.

That leaves coach Paul Johnson having to replace his leading receiver and rusher and defensive big-play leaders in interceptions and sacks.

The unquestioned leader is senior quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns last year as the Yellow Jackets finished 11-3 and beat Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

ACC media picked the Yellow Jackets third in the Coastal Division last month, behind Virginia Tech and Miami.

"They had to pick somebody, and we lost some key players," Johnson said. "I think we can be competitive."

Georgia Tech had a combined 105 scholarship and walk-on players for Thursday's first practice.

Georgia Tech gave up 30 or more points in six games last season, including a 30-24 loss to Georgia to end the regular season. Iowa beat the Yellow Jackets 24-14 in the Orange Bowl.

Former Virginia coach Al Groh was hired to head the defense. Groh installed a 3-4 scheme in spring practice.

oach," Johnson said. "He has a lot of energy and I think he's going to be good for our program. We're excited about having a guy like that on our staff.

"I think our players are excited about the direction. We struggled to stop the run (in 2009). We struggled in getting the other team off the field."

Few expect the spread option offense to be slowed by a change at running back. Anthony Allen replaces Dwyer after ranking third on the team with 618 yards rushing last season. Allen averaged 9.7 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns.

"I think Anthony is a very good player," Johnson said. "I hope our production doesn't drop off at that position and I don't think it will."

HOT DOGS: The Georgia Bulldogs conducted a two-and-a-half-hour workout in shoulder pads and shorts on Thursday as they continue to prepare for the 2010 campaign. The session was the fourth of 29 before the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, Sept. 4.

The heat played a role in head coach Mark Richt's assessment of the practice.

"I would say the heat jumped on us today," Richt said. "It was probably the hottest day and the fact that it's the fourth day. Toward the end there, they didn't give in but it was tough. A lot of guys were battling through. A lot of guys were maybe thinking about giving in. There were probably a couple of guys who did give in.

"It's tough to maintain the tempo and the energy we've had to this point every day, especially in this heat and being on field turf," Richt continued. "It's probably 10-15 degrees hotter on field turf than it is on a grass surface. That will probably pay dividends when we play on grass. I still see good things happening."

Richt drew attention to the performance of junior Logan Gray, who moved from quarterback to receiver following spring practice.

"I like what I'm seeing out of Logan Gray," Richt said. "He's really running his routes pretty well for not having a lot of reps. I know he did it all summer and worked hard all summer. If I'd have been able to watch this summer, I might've seen the progression of it. I'm impressed that he's this far along this quickly. He seems to catch the ball well. He has not been afraid to block, which he probably hadn't had to do much in his football career. I think there are definitely advantages of understanding the offensive system from the quarterback's perspective."