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Tech seniors wrapping up successful stint with Yellow Jackets

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson talks with running back David Sims in a game earlier this season. Sims is one of 15 scholarship seniors playing their last game in a Yellow Jackets uniform Monday in the Music City Bowl. (Reuters)

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson talks with running back David Sims in a game earlier this season. Sims is one of 15 scholarship seniors playing their last game in a Yellow Jackets uniform Monday in the Music City Bowl. (Reuters)

In the summers of 2009 and 2010, they converged on Georgia Tech from every corner of Georgia, around the Southeast and beyond.

Their time at Tech has taken them through highs, lows, calculus and El Paso, Texas. Twice. The Yellow Jackets’ 15 scholarship seniors will conclude their 53-game run Monday at the Music City Bowl against Ole Miss in Nashville.

Their stewardship of the team during their time in white and gold is open to interpretation.

“It might not be as many wins or anything (as desired), but I think we established a good work ethic for everybody,” offensive tackle Ray Beno said. “I think as a class, we worked very hard.”

The seniors, who either enrolled in 2009 and redshirted or came to Tech in 2010 and played as true freshmen, have earned a 28-24 record over the past four seasons. Their ACC record is 19-13, which is the fourth best among ACC teams over that time, behind Florida State (26-6), Clemson and Virginia Tech (both 24-8). It could be judged as outdoing expectations, given that Rivals ranked both of Tech’s 2009 and 2010 signing classes eighth in the ACC. Scout judged them fifth and sixth, respectively.

The team played for the ACC title last season, coming within one drive of upsetting Florida State and going to the Orange Bowl as ACC champions. While the loss to FSU dropped Tech below .500 and required an NCAA waiver to get into the Sun Bowl, the Jackets took advantage by procuring perhaps the class’ most notable on-field achievement — ending Tech’s seven-year bowl losing streak with a 21-7 win over USC.

Over the past four years, Tech was 4-0 against North Carolina but 1-15 against four critical rivals — Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia and Clemson, the lone win a 2011 victory over Clemson, then ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings. Six of the 15 losses were decided by one possession, three of them in overtime, including the heartbreaking 41-34 double overtime loss to Georgia Nov. 30. The Jackets’ 0-4 record against Virginia Tech could easily be 2-2 or even better, which would considerably alter the perspective on the class’ performance.

The class inherited the program’s 13-year bowl streak and helped extend it to 17, tied with Georgia for the third longest in the country behind FSU (32) and Virginia Tech (21). While the proliferation of bowls has reduced the challenge of earning a bowl invitation, postseason appearances are still hardly a given. In the past four years, only three other ACC teams (Clemson, FSU and Virginia Tech) have gone to a bowl game every year, not counting newcomer Pittsburgh.

The bowl streak speaks to the relative consistency and stability, if not outsized success, that Tech has enjoyed over three coaching regimes. The relief and excitement that seniors felt following the Nov. 2 win over Pittsburgh, which secured bowl eligibilitsimsy, was indicative of the responsibility that they felt towards keeping the streak going.

B-back David Sims, a captain of this year’s team, agreed with an evaluation that it has been a “mixed bag,” a favorite term of head coach Paul Johnson.

“I think you hit it on the head,” he said.

Individually, it has been a solid group with a few exceptional players. Of the 15 scholarship seniors, one has been a four-year starter (offensive lineman Will Jackson), five have been three-year starters (defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, center Jay Finch, B-back Sims, cornerback Louis Young and Beno) and four have been two-year starters (defensive end Emmanuel Dieke, A-back Robert Godhigh, safety Jemea Thomas and linebacker Brandon Watts). Kicker David Scully and punter Sean Poole have also contributed significantly on special teams.

Eleven of the 15 have played in 40 or more games. From a roster management standpoint, that’s considerable value redeemed from the scholarship space.

However, only one of the 15 — Attaochu — earned All-ACC status, though Finch, Godhigh, Jackson and Sims have been named All-ACC honorable mention. Attaochu also became Johnson’s first recruit to be named to the Associated Press All-America team, selected for the third-team defense earlier in December. While not receiving All-ACC honors, Godhigh and Thomas in particular have been standouts who far exceeded outside expectations.

The class has excelled in one critical area. Of the 15 players in the 21-member 2009 signing class who stayed at least four seasons, 14 have graduated. The 15th, former defensive lineman Izaan Cross, is expected to return for the spring semester to complete his degree work.

That doesn’t include Godhigh, Scully and Poole, who came to Tech in 2009 as walk-ons and earned scholarships, or Julian Burnett and J.C. Lanier, who both graduated with medical scholarships after injuries prematurely ended their careers. Burnett, Godhigh, Scully and Lanier have graduated, Poole is on track to complete degree work. Provided Cross and Poole finish, that would be 20-for-20.

Their classroom work helped the team post its highest Academic Progress Rate score in June, one that was in the top 10 percent in FBS and earned recognition from the NCAA.

“It’s been a good group,” Johnson said. “I’m really proud of them, not only for what they’ve done on the field, but off the field.”

The classroom labor will pay off for years and decades to come. On the field, though, the 2013 Tech senior class has but one more opportunity to reap rewards from hundreds of practice hours and thousands of pounds of weights lifted.

Despite the “mixed bag” grade, Sims said, “we still could say out of all the teams that Coach Johnson’s had, we actually did win a bowl game. Hopefully we can win two in a row.”