ATLANTA — The personnel losses for Georgia Tech are fairly severe. The Yellow Jackets return only 11 offensive and defensive starters from last year’s 7-6 team.
Further, the Jackets were gutted along their offensive spine, with center Jay Finch and B-back David Sims graduating and quarterback Vad Lee transferring.
As Tech counts down the final days to the start of preseason camp, the Jackets look to a new trio who will have their hands on the ball the most frequently — center Freddie Burden, quarterback Justin Thomas and B-back Zach Laskey are all pegged to be first-year starters for the 2014 offense.
They bring varying amounts of experience and different elements to the offense than did their predecessors. They represent the potential but uncertainty that surrounds the offense and the team itself.
“He knows that he can be that 1,000-yard back,” guard Shaquille Mason said of Laskey. “I feel that he can, too.”
Laskey is penciled in to start at the offense’s primary running back spot after two seasons behind Sims.
“Zach, he’s definitely a power guy,” Mason said. “He doesn’t shy away from contact at all. He definitely prefers running you over than cutting. I like that about him.”
Last year, he averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns. Coach Paul Johnson said he had the best spring practice of anyone on the team. He’ll have the benefit of a more consistent load of carries, as last year he had as few as two carries in a game (Clemson) to as many as 16 (Virginia), but will also have to provide corresponding productivity.
Given the fact that Burden has yet to play a college snap — he redshirted two seasons ago and then missed the 2013 season after tearing his ACL in the spring — he qualifies as one of the biggest question marks among Jackets expected to receive heavy playing time. He’s part of a line that, while lacking overall experience, could deliver an upgrade in athletic ability over the 2013 version.
“Freddie is a pure athlete,” linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said of Burden. “That guy has a lot of speed. He definitely is a fire-off-the-ball type guy.”
Thomas will be the trigger to connect the two, just Tech’s third regular starting quarterback in Johnson’s seven seasons. He offers a different dimension of speed and quickness that Johnson has not had in the offense at Tech.
Perhaps as significant, as Johnson has mentioned more than once, Thomas and backup Tim Byerly have embraced Johnson’s option offense in a way that Lee did not. Johnson has made no secret of his desire to return the offense to its option roots.
Ball security has been a challenge for Thomas, and his ability to consistently make the right reads in the offense is a significant variable. Johnson himself conceded the durability of the 185-pound quarterback is another concern.
But he and Byerly, whose strong spring portends a role in the offense, have the potential to be a useful combination of speed and tough inside running.
“We feel good about that position,” Johnson said.
Their productivity could tell the story of the season. If they can be cogs to help generate first downs and points and keep a thin defense off the field, Tech can score wins beyond the fifth-place finish that media at the ACC Football Kickoff projected. If they’re not quite ready for the responsibility, fifth place might be about right.