2012 Georgia Tech Football Preview: The Forward Pass, Volume II

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 17: Orwin Smith #17 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets pulls in a touchdown reception against Keeston Terry #9 of the Kansas Jayhawks at Bobby Dodd Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Paul Johnson has won eight or more games in three of four seasons at Georgia Tech. His fun Flexbone will need contributions from a completely unknown set of receivers in 2012 (that, or the defense could actually try to carry its weight for once), but it only takes a couple of "ifs" to turn Tech into a dangerous team this fall. Related: Georgia Tech's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Jackets football, visit Georgia Tech blog From The Rumble Seat, plus SB Nation Atlanta.

Last June, I wrote this about Georgia Tech football:

As odd as it may seem, the pass is going to once again be the key to Georgia Tech's offensive success in 2011. No matter what happens, and no matter who wins the quarterback job in [Joshua] Nesbitt's absence, Tech isn't going to pass much. The Yellow Jackets are what they are. But when they do pass, it has to work occasionally. And if Tevin Washington (417 yards, 6.8 per pass, 41% completion rate, 2 TD, 3 INT; 548 pre-sack rushing yards, -10.3 Adj. POE) can't complete more than 41% of his passes, then look for a youngster to take his job. For whatever it's worth, both [Stephen] Hill and Orson Smith return this fall; but without solid development, that is not necessarily a reason for optimism.

Then, after a torrid start by both Georgia Tech and its passing offense, I wrote this:

I don't know ... do you consider a 79-percent catch rate and a per-target average of 26.4 yards to be "solid development?" Because those are the numbers Hill (18 targets, 14 catches, 462 yards) and Smith (six targets, five catches, 172 yards) are posting this fall.

Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech career has spanned 44 games at this point. They have completed at least three passes of 30-plus yards in a game six times (three times this season), and they've won all six of those games. They have completed at least two passes of 30+ yards with at least a 46-percent completion percentage ten times (including all four of this year's games), and they've won all 10 of those games. Tech doesn't have to pass much to succeed -- in fact, in Johnson's tenure they are just 2-4 when passing more than 16 times in a game (since passing that much usually means they're losing) -- but they do need to show just enough proficiency to peel defenders away from the line of scrimmage. […]

Suddenly the Yellow Jackets are thinking about their second conference title in three years, though to accomplish that goal they must get through the coming weeks (at N.C. State, Maryland, at Virginia) unscathed. The schedule is heavily back-loaded -- they face Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia in the last five games -- but even if they begin to show the occasional crack, they could still be the most high-caliber offense of the Johnson era. And to think, a month ago we didn't know if Washington would be the starting quarterback.


The ACC Episode by Shutdown Fullback

It's pretty clear at this point: if Georgia Tech can pass, Georgia Tech can win big. The Yellow Jackets don't even have to do it efficiently -- they just have to swing for the fences and connect once or twice.

They proved in 2009 (good) and 2010 (bad) just how different Paul Johnson's Flexbone can be when there is at least the slight chance of a deep ball. And they demonstrated both sides of the spectrum in 2011.

After I wrote the above Morning Tailgate, the Yellow Jackets scored 45 points in a win over N.C. State, moving to 5-0 on the season. But then the magic stopped. After catching 14 of his first 18 passes for 462 yards, Stephen Hill caught just 14 of his final 36 passes for 358; that is still almost 10 yards per target, but the catch rate (39 percent) was just too inefficient. After averaging 51.6 points (and 35.5 opponent-adjusted Adj. Points) per game in their first five contests, GT averaged just 23.5 points (28.3 Adj. Points) thereafter. The offense was still interesting, but it was no longer good enough to cover for a shaky defense, and Tech lost five of its final seven games of 2011.

It is probably silly to boil a team down to one specific unit or category, but when Tech can threaten to pass well (and in a semi-efficient manner) within the context of the Flexbone, it wins. When it doesn't, it doesn't. At least, that has been the tale so far. In 2012, Johnson and Tech return a squad that is beautifully experienced in almost every unit -- only five or six members of last year's defensive two-deep are gone, the offensive line returns over 80 career starts, and there is an embarrassment of option riches in the backfield -- but the wide receiver position is completely and totally devoid of any experience following the departures of Hill and Tyler Melton.

If passing is the key, then Tech is in for a long season. But if "passing = everything" is too simplistic and the rest of the team can make up for a single weakness, then the Yellow Jackets could contend in a shaky ACC Coastal Division.


Related: Check out Georgia Tech's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's a little more of what I said about Tech last year:

Paul Johnson has proven that while there are a million ways to win a football game, there are also a million ways to quickly become stagnant. He will be relying on youth to avoid stagnation, and that's not typically something that works out beautifully. Still, the schedule sets up for a reasonably fast start -- first seven games: Western Carolina, at Middle Tennessee, Kansas, North Carolina, at N.C. State, Maryland, at Virginia. If they have even only slightly improved, then 6-1 is not out of the question; if not, then 3-4 is in play, and Johnson's seat could become rather warm rather quickly. This is a very important season for Tech's long-term viability under Johnson, and some newcomers will decide how the narrative develops.

As impressive as Tech looked in September, at least part of that had to do with a cakey schedule. Unlike in some recent seasons, Middle Tennessee wasn't even a slight threat, and Kansas was almost even worse in 2011 than it was in 2010. Beating North Carolina and N.C. State was a bit of an accomplishment, as was beating eventual Atlantic Division champion Clemson later on (Tech actually bounced back with three straight strong performances starting in late-October). But the offense clearly trailed off, and the defense very much could not pick up the slack. If the Yellow Jackets could have figured out a way to take out Virginia Tech at home, they'd have still come away with the division crown, but they lost, 37-26.

It was an up-and-down season for Tech, as is often the case for young teams:

First Five Games: Georgia Tech 35.5 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 29.5 (plus-6.0)
Next Three Games: Opponents 27.2 Adj. Points per game, Georgia Tech 23.5 (minus-3.7)
Next Three Games: Georgia Tech 31.9 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 29.5 (plus-2.4)
Final Two Games: Opponents 30.8 Adj. Points per game, Georgia Tech 30.0 (minus-0.8)

Now, as mentioned above, Tech is a deep, experienced team in almost every unit. Almost.

Offense

At this point, I find myself almost assuming that everybody is well-versed in the ways of the Flexbone. Just in case that is not true, here is some YouTube homework:

On paper, the Flexbone is everything you've ever liked about any offense, ever. You've got any number of option plays -- triple option, midline option, etc. -- but you've also got core concepts for everything from the I-formation to the run-and-shoot. Johnson loves quick motion to move from the base Flexbone into any number of formations, and depending on the capabilities of his personnel, this offense could take on 100 different tendencies. What Johnson calls the B-Back could either be a feature rusher or a fullback; the A-back could be anything from an I-Back to a slot receiver.

In practice, however, Tech's offense is the most run-heavy of any BCS conference attack, and while run-and-shoot capabilities and sprint-out passing are certainly pieces of the puzzle, you're going to struggle to find a quarterback who can fully take advantage of the pass options while still having a skill set conducive to effectively running the option. Tevin Washington was an upgrade over Josh Nesbitt in terms of passing, and it made a huge difference, but he is still going to be limited as a passer. And while the Flexbone is based on making the defense unsure of its next moves, opponents tend to figure out the Tech offense as a given game progresses.

Last year, Tech ranked 13th, 10th and 25th, respectively, in first-, second- and third-quarter S&P+; they ranked 100th in the fourth quarter. In essence, that's why a semi-competent passing game is so important: you don't want the opponent figuring out your tricks in 45 minutes. You want them to still be confused after 60.

In theory, the 2012 Tech offense should have a lot to offer. Washington returns for his senior season after averaging 9.8 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) and 4.6 yards per non-sack rush. And if he struggles, two intriguing backups could be ready for a shot. In clean-up duty, sophomore Synjyn Days averaged 14.8 yards per pass attempt and 5.1 yards per carry last year. He was more highly-touted than Washington out of high school, and if HE doesn't cut it, then four-star freshman Justin Thomas could get a look. Days should provide stiff enough competition that Washington is forced to maintain a high level if he wants to continue seeing the field.

The quarterback of choice has a multitude of weapons at running back. B-Back David Sims proved he could be more than just a "keep them off-balance with fullback plunges" guy, averaging 5.2 yards per carry with a plus-6.4 Adj. POE (meaning he was about a touchdown better than the average back given his carries, opponents and blocking). Meanwhile, three home run threats exist at the A-Back position. Senior Orwin Smith was potentially the most dangerous player in the country on a per-touch basis last year -- in seven intended touches per game (5.1 carries, 1.9 pass targets), he averaged 11.0 yards per touch -- but he was dinged up for a portion of the season and missed the spring with toe surgery.

If Smith can stay healthy and perhaps improve to about 10-to-12 potential touches per game, that alone could take Tech's offense to a different level. Meanwhile, sophomores Tony Zenon and B.J. Bostic are not chopped liver. Bostic missed 2011 with injury, but in their respective freshman seasons, these two combined for 216 yards on just 28 carries. These weapons will also benefit from a line that returns seven players with starting experience (82 career starts), including first-team all-conference guard Omoregie Uzzi. The line ranked 13th in Adj. Line Yards last year and should crack the Top 10 this year, and though the unit struggled mightily with injuries this spring, it looks like it will be solid for the fall.

The run game is in good hands, in other words. The passing game, however? That's a different story.

Stephen Hill and Tyler Melton combined for 45 catches on 74 targets per game last year. All other Tech wideouts combined for zero catches. Hill left early for the pros, and Melton graduated, leaving an enormous black hole at the receiver position. Now, there is nothing saying that the replacements will be bad; it's just that we have absolutely no idea. Out of the following batch of players, two will emerge: senior Chris Jackson, junior Jeremy Moore, sophomores Jeff Greene (a second-stringer as a true freshman last year) and Darren Waller, and freshmen Anthony Autry and Travin Henry. If each first-stringer is capable of catching one or two long balls per game, this offense will be ferocious. If not, Tech will probably slow down significantly in the second half (both of the season and a given game) once again.

Defense

It is very easy to structure a conversation about Georgia Tech completely around the unique offense. But as mentioned a couple of times above, the Yellow Jackets didn't necessarily lose games because their offense stagnated in 2011; they lost them because the offense couldn't pick up the slack for a still lacking defense. Former Virginia head coach Al Groh took over as Tech's defensive coordinator in 2010, and thus far the results have been mixed. He inherited a defense that ranked 72nd in Def. F/+ in Tech's ACC title-winning 2009 season; a young unit ranked 86th in 2010, then improved to 62nd in 2011. Improvement is improvement, but the Yellow Jackets were still terrible against the run last fall, and it cost them.

Quite simply, the Georgia Tech defense could be pushed around in 2011. Tech ranked just 101st in Rushing S&P+ last season and 109th in Adj. Line Yards. An aggressive pass defense (43rd in Passing S&P+, 33rd in Adj. Sack Rate, 22nd in Passing Success Rate+) was able to make up some ground, but the Ramblin' Wreck was lacking up front. It probably isn't good, then, that the leading tacklers at defensive end, defensive tackle and inside linebacker are all gone. Then again, new blood might not be a bad thing.

There are still plenty of question marks in the front seven of Groh's 3-4 defense, but Jeremiah Attaochu returns, and that's fantastic. Attaochu led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks in 2011, and while he is a bit unstable, to put it kindly -- his inexplicable, third-quarter punch of Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas completely turned the GT-VT game that decided the Coastal Division crown -- he is also a fantastic playmaker. Despite the danger, Tech would be better off with two Attaochus than none.

With Burnett gone, inside linebackers like sophomore Quayshawn Nealy, Daniel Drummond (suspended for 1.5 games) and perhaps four-star redshirt freshman Jabari Hunt-Days will need to raise their respective games a bit, but there is potential here. Up front, the potential is less clear. End Izaan Cross was great at deflecting passes (he broke up four of them, the most of anybody on the front seven), but he wasn't much of a playmaker. Meanwhile, likely starting tackle T.J. Barnes is almost hilariously big (6'7, 347 pounds) but didn't actually do much last year.

While the run defense could still be iffy, Attaochu and fellow outside linebacker Brandon Watts should ensure that the pass rush is still reasonably solid. And if that's the case, the secondary should shine once again. Corners Rod Sweeting, Jemea Thomas and Louis Young combined for 10.0 tackles for loss, seven interceptions and 21 passes broken up last year. Thomas moves to safety to take over for departed Rashaad Reid, at least part of the time, alongside Isaiah Johnson (3.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions, three passes broken up), and interesting sophomore Fred Holton returns to bring depth to the safety ranks. Tech should probably expect marginal defensive improvement again in 2012, if just because of the stellar secondary.

Defining Success

Georgia Tech's schedule over the first half of the season is fascinating. The Yellow Jackets start the season at Virginia Tech on Labor Day, play four straight home games (including interesting tilts versus Virginia and Miami), then play at Clemson on October 6. Any start between 6-0 and 2-4 is at least somewhat feasible, but if the Yellow Jackets can figure out a way to slip up only once in that span, then they will enter mid-October as the division favorites. But if the defense hasn't improved and the passing game is devoid of a threat, then they won't be anywhere close to 5-1. Still, the schedule caters nicely to thoughts of another 8-4 season, so we'll set the bar there. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 backs up that line of thinking: Tech is given a 56 percent chance of finishing 8-4 or better.

Prognosis

As I have said many times, I appreciate that a major conference school gave Paul Johnson a chance to ply his unique trade, and I think the results have been quite tolerable to date. He's a great fit in Atlanta. In four seasons, Johnson has won at least eight games in a season three times; in 16 seasons, Bill Lewis, George O'Leary and Chan Gailey combined to do so just five times.

Tech isn't going to light the recruiting world aflame, and the Yellow Jackets' ceiling may not be as high as that of other division rivals like Virginia Tech or, when it isn't facing sanctions, Miami. But they've already taken one conference title, and if either the passing game is at least marginally dangerous or the defense improves enough to help out the offense a bit more, they could put themselves in position to compete for another one in 2012.

Georgia Tech isn't, and shouldn't be, the favorite in that regard, but the fact that Johnson is putting an interesting enough product on the field to be in the discussion is a bit of a success, in and of itself.

For more on Jackets football, visit Georgia Tech blog From The Rumble Seat, plus SB Nation Atlanta.

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