0

Georgia Tech's five preseason goals begin with finding star wideout

Georgia Tech doesn’t throw the ball a lot, but when the Yellow Jackets need to, they need receivers — a position that’s a huge question mark coming into this season. The top returner on the team is Darren Waller — and his stats aren’t anything to write home about with just eight career catches. Georgia Tech has produced some great wideouts in recent years and the Yellow Jackets hope there are a couple who emerge this fall. (Georgia Tech)

Georgia Tech doesn’t throw the ball a lot, but when the Yellow Jackets need to, they need receivers — a position that’s a huge question mark coming into this season. The top returner on the team is Darren Waller — and his stats aren’t anything to write home about with just eight career catches. Georgia Tech has produced some great wideouts in recent years and the Yellow Jackets hope there are a couple who emerge this fall. (Georgia Tech)

ATLANTA — Georgia Tech opens preseason camp Thursday with 15 starters returning, a new defensive coordinator and the hope of a new era for the offense.

The Yellow Jackets are permitted 29 practices until the first game, Aug. 31 against Elon at Bobby Dodd Stadium. In that time, the depth chart will be sorted out, conditioning levels will be raised, incoming freshmen will be monitored to see who might be able to play this season and offensive and defensive schemes will be taught and sharpened.

The Jackets, picked by media to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal Division behind Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, figure to be in the mix for a shot at playing in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 7 for the conference title. The following are questions to be answered over the next month as the Jackets launch their pursuit of the title:

1). Who will emerge at receiver? Without question, receiver is the biggest question mark facing Tech at this point. Because of injuries and players not returning, the position is about as inexperienced as it was last season, when no wide receiver on the roster had any career catches. This year, Darren Waller is the sole returnee with any career receptions, and he has just eight.

Waller has the mix of size and speed to follow in the Demaryius Thomas/Stephen Hill line but has to play with more consistency.

He’ll also be asked to provide leadership to a group that will learn on the job. That includes Travin Henry and Micheal Summers, who both will compete for a starting spot as redshirt freshmen. A notable wild card is DeAndre Smelter, a highly touted recruit in high school who has played baseball for the past three years and is giving football another shot.

2). Can injured defensive players get up to speed? Linebackers Brandon Watts and Jabari Hunt-Days and safety Isaiah Johnson missed spring practice with injuries. Normally, that might not be cause for considerable alarm, but in this instance it meant they missed their first opportunity to learn new defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s 4-3 scheme. The three are all integral pieces of the Tech defense, bringing speed (Watts), power (Hunt-Days) and experience (Johnson) to the unit, and they’ll need to catch up as Roof teaches the defense in camp.

In a limited amount of time, they’ll have to digest the terminology of Roof’s defense and be able to execute the coverages and concepts inherent to his scheme. It’s a lot to learn in a classroom setting and usually even more difficult to apply on the field.

3). How will special teams shake out? Perhaps two of the more heated competitions will take place at the kicking spots, where placekicker David Scully will try to fend off freshman Harrison Butker and punter returnees Ryan Rodwell and Sean Poole will boot it out. Butker, from Westminster, was ESPN’s No. 3 kicking prospect last year and is being counted on to bring a powerful and consistent leg, whether it’s this year or in the future. Scully won the job last season but struggled with injuries and ended up making just four of eight field-goal tries.

Both punters played last season, as Rodwell replaced Poole after a shoulder injury in the Miami game. Both averaged 39.7 yards per punt. The winners will work with a new long snapper, as Tyler Morgan graduated after four practically flawless seasons. Sean Tobin, the first snapper Johnson brought in on scholarship, played nine games in the 2011 season but redshirted last year.

4). How deep will running backs go? Two of the three running back jobs are spoken for — David Sims at B-back and Robert Godhigh at one of the two A-back spots. Johnson and A-backs coach Lamar Owens will have no shortage of options for the other spot. B.J. Bostic is atop the depth chart going into camp, but Dennis Andrews, Synjyn Days, Deon Hill, Charles Perkins and former Deerfield star Tony Zenon will compete to get into the rotation. All have their strengths — Zenon is quick, Days is a bullish runner, Bostic has shown a knack for playmaking, for example — but consistency and versatility will win the job.

After gaining 393 yards in the last five games of the season, Sims is healthy and primed for a big senior season. Backups Zach Laskey (697 yards last season) and Broderick Snoddy, who broke the school’s 60-meter dash record three times in the winter with the track team, will try to earn playing time behind him.

5). How much variation can the offense handle? Undoubtedly, the player whom fans most anticipate is quarterback Vad Lee, who is widely expected to be the starting quarterback against Elon. With a dual-threat quarterback who offers Tech the potential to finally break out the passing game, the Jackets figure to run more offense out of the shotgun than they have previously. Lee, however, still will need to master the offense’s option plays and take better care of the ball in order to make the passing attack more effective.

As defense is changing, so the offense also will need to rehearse the adjustments that will be made to accommodate the skill sets of Lee and backup Justin Thomas. Center Jay Finch missed the spring after shoulder surgery and will have to adapt to the shotgun snap, and the line as a whole will need to adapt to the variations involved in executing plays from the shotgun rather than a direct snap.