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Johnson on Tech's struggles: Stop the mistakes, play with some emotion

Photo by Orlin Wagner

Photo by Orlin Wagner

ATLANTA -- Who knows when Georgia Tech will awake from its slumber?

Not Paul Johnson, whose Yellow Jackets are mistake-prone and emotionally flat.

He believes his team needs to play "like our hair is on fire" or "like we're upset at somebody" on Saturday at Wake Forest.

Johnson, who has never lost consecutive games at Georgia Tech, is tired of waiting on some leaders to emerge.

"You have to have some leadership and have some guys who step up and challenge other guys," he said Tuesday. "We have to do that as coaches as well, but I don't know that I can get after 'em any more than I've gotten after 'em the last four weeks. You can't make somebody want it."

Georgia Tech (2-2, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) has lost two of three as it prepares to face the Demon Deacons (2-2, 1-1).

When the Yellow Jackets win, missed assignments usually number in the teens, but against N.C. State on Sept. 25, Johnson saw over each 40 on offense and defense. On special teams, a bad snap and poor decision by punter Chandler Anderson led to a blocked punt.

Johnson says a leadership void among players was obvious during a season-opening win over South Carolina State on Sept. 4 -- it was the first time he saw his team emotionally flat.

After Georgia Tech was embarrassed at Kansas a week later on Sept. 11, Johnson thought the enthusiasm improved dramatically, although there were some missed some assignments, in a win at North Carolina.

But last week brought another letdown.

Part of Georgia Tech's leadership void stems from the early NFL departures of defensive end Derrick Morgan, receiver Demaryius Thomas, running back Jonathan Dwyer and safety Morgan Burnett.

But the third-year coach believes their replacements should've emerged long before the season began.

"I don't know what state this team's in. We've played four games. There's still eight games to go, at least. This team can still pretty good if they want to play with some urgency, but they've got to decide," he said. "You've got to be hungry. Either you want to be pretty good or you want to be mediocre."

Johnson is baffled by the high number veteran players who routinely make mistakes.

Even quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who began the season with Heisman Trophy hopes, isn't immune despite ranking third in ACC rushing.

"Sometimes he takes too much of a hit in the passing game," Johnson said. "A lot of times he's running for his life or doesn't have time to set his feet or whatever."

Nesbitt was disappointed that the offense has yet to produce the kind of lengthy, clock-chewing drives that are a staple of Georgia Tech's spread option offense.

"I feel like I can make better reads and get the ball dealt a little to more playmakers," Nesbitt said. "Like in the last game, I did some things right. I did a lot of things wrong. Too many things wrong."

Running back Anthony Allen has yet to prove he can replace Dwyer. The offensive line is inexperienced. Stephen Hill and the Yellow Jackets' other receivers lack Thomas' vertical skills in the passing game.

The defense sheds blocks poorly, misses blitz assignments and blows routine coverages. Of 125 passes against them, the Jackets have just one interception among the secondary.

Johnson wants improvement, but he didn't place too much blame on the 3-4 scheme installed by new coordinator Al Groh.

"If you've got a three-man (blitz) on and two of them blitz and one doesn't and they run the ball through the gap where the guy didn't blitz, that's beating yourself," Johnson said. "Not giving yourself a chance."

Wake Forest has dropped two straight by a combined 99-24 in visits to Stanford and Florida State.

Demon Deacons coach Jim Grobe, whose team ranks 15th nationally with an average of 238.5 yards rushing, isn't buying laments from Johnson, whose spread option attack ranks No. 4 in rushing at 320.5.

"They lose great players, but they just plug the next guys in and say, 'Here we go,'" Grobe said. "They're still pretty special on offense."