New coaches have Tech feeling as confident as ever

Georgia Tech starting center Jay Finch

Georgia Tech starting center Jay Finch

ATLANTA — Jay Finch has been a part of the Georgia Tech football since 2009. He senses a change.

“I’d say there’s a little bit different energy, just like through and through,” the Yellow Jackets center said. “Like in the locker room, out on the field, everything.”

He gives credit to strength and conditioning coach John Sisk, who was hired in May 2012 and recently completed his first full offseason with the team, for bringing the players closer together. Outside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy points to former Tech greats who have returned to the fold — defensive coordinator Ted Roof and recruiting intern Joe Hamilton — as well as recruiting staffer Saeed Khalif.

“It feels different,” Nealy said. “These guys relate tremendously.”

It has not been an auspicious preseason. None of the 62 voters in the USA Today coaches poll — seven of whom will play Tech this year — deemed the Yellow Jackets worthy of a Top 25 vote in preseason balloting. The schedule is precarious. But an assortment of changes within the program may have provided new breath.

“We’re in a better place,” defensive backs coach Joe Speed said. “We’re making progress.”

Tech entered the offseason coming off a bowl win for the first time since the end of the 2004 season, having broken its seven-game bowl losing streak against preseason No. 1 USC. The departure of secondary coach and interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly for Florida State, coupled with the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh, gave coach Paul Johnson room to hire Roof and defensive line coach Mike Pelton. Those hirings enabled Andy McCollum, who was defensive line coach and then moved to linebackers after Groh’s dismissal, to stay with the linebackers, his specialty.

Quarterbacks and B-backs coach Brian Bohannon was hired in March by Kennesaw State to lead its new program, creating an opening for Bryan Cook, a co-offensive coordinator from Cal-Poly who ran a variation of Tech’s spread-option and helped the Mustangs lead FCS in passing efficiency in 2012.

“We’ve got probably more new coaches than we ever have,” Johnson said.

Gregg Garrett, a donor to the athletic department and a friend of Johnson’s, has seen an effect greater than the mere replacement of staff.

“After you go five, six years into a coaching regime, sometimes things get a little stale,” he said. “These guys just brought in a whole new breath of fresh air. I think it’s carried over to the kids.”

Coaches tweaked recruiting strategy, putting more attention on recruits from private schools in cities such as Washington, D.C., Cincinnati and Nashville in hopes of finding prospects more interested in and prepared for Tech’s academic rigor. Athletic director Mike Bobinski, who started in April, OK’d Johnson’s request for two additional recruiting staffers. That resulted in the hiring of player personnel director Matt Griffin, who replaced Liam Klein (now at Kennesaw State), Mike Cassano, Khalif and Hamilton.

That follows up on other recent changes like the new indoor practice facility, a new team meeting room and players lounge.

“I feel like facilities, we’re getting to where every time we turn around, we’re improving who we are and what we are,” said McCollum, also the recruiting coordinator. And “being able to add the additional (recruiting) staff has been nothing but a plus to Georgia Tech.”

He then cited a favorite Johnson saying: “Small things develop into big things.”

The changes don’t stop at the roster and depth chart. The ascension of Vad Lee to the starting quarterback spot, the pending senior seasons of veteran playmakers like defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu and cornerback Jemea Thomas, and the development of sophomores such as nose tackle Adam Gotsis and middle linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days are reasons for optimism.

Johnson acknowledged that the top five players on the 2009 ACC title team may be more talented than this year’s team, but he said, “I think as a group, (No.) 1 through 85, it’s probably the most talented.” As for the offensive line, with three fifth-year seniors in the lineup, Johnson said, “Hands down, not even close, this’ll be the best group we’ve ever had, if they’re all healthy.”

That said, Johnson downplayed talk of invigoration or momentum gained.

“I’m not a big buyer of momentum,” Johnson said. “We came off winning 11 games (in 2009) and won six (in 2010). Couldn’t have more momentum than winning the ACC championship and going to the Orange Bowl.”

Regardless, Johnson feels good about his sixth team at Tech.

“If we stay healthy, I think we can be OK,” he said.

And what does O.K. mean for a team that media picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal Division?

Said Johnson: “Well, I think we’ve got a chance to win the league.”