Georgia Tech's offseason priorities

Each spring practice is both the same and different than others. Coaches are trying to find replacements for departed stars. Freshmen who had redshirted the previous season are trying to figure out the scheme in an environment that allows for more teaching. The team tries to build momentum to charge into the summer ahead.

Below are the five objectives identified as priorities for Georgia Tech when it began spring practice in March. With practice complete, we revisit them and try to assess how the Yellow Jackets did.

Get the B-backs ready

The process to replace graduated B-backs Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Matt Connors did not work out as planned, but the end result may be workable. Going into the spring, the depth chart at the primary running back spot consisted of redshirt freshman C.J. Leggett, early-enrollee freshman Quaide Weimerskirch and walk-on Brady Swilling.

Coaches’ hopes were for Weimerskirch to develop enough in his first collegiate practices to push Leggett, whose redshirt was nearly removed midway through the season because of injuries and his own progress. However, Weimerskirch suffered a foot injury midway through the spring that required surgery and put his playing status for the fall in question. That led to a move for Marcus Allen, who began his Tech career at B-back and then moved to linebacker and then wide receiver, back to B-back to provide depth.

In the final practice before the spring game, Leggett tore his ACL, ending his season and seriously thinning a focal-point position of the Tech offense, leaving the Jackets without their top two options.

Into the void jumped Allen, who demonstrated tackle-breaking power in a 14-carry, 77-yard effort in the spring game. He will be joined by Patrick Skov, a graduate transfer from Stanford who played fullback for three seasons for the Cardinal and became intrigued with playing his final season with Tech after watching the Jackets play in the ACC Championship game. He was a short-yardage specialist last season, carrying 12 times for 18 yards and four touchdowns.

Find some A-backs and receivers, too

With wide receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller drafted into the NFL and top A-backs Deon Hill, B.J. Bostic, Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon also graduated, opportunity was considerable for the returning players at the positions.

Perhaps the most significant development at the two positions was the progress of wide receiver Ricky Jeune and the emergence of walk-on A-back Isiah Willis. Jeune, competing with Antonio Messick and early-enrollee freshman Harland Howell behind Micheal Summers, emerged as a downfield threat, although consistency remains a challenge. Willis’ knowledge of the offense and position helped him rise to the top of the depth chart following the conclusion of spring practice.

Coach Paul Johnson said that “I thought our A-backs did some good things. We had a couple of guys that we redshirted, Qua Searcy and Clinton Lynch, who I think both are going to be good players.”

Both position groups did have problems catching the ball at times, obviously a concern. Coming out of the spring, coaches hardly brimmed with confidence over both positions, but given the inexperience at both spots and the high expectations, it should not have come as a great surprise.

Get some answers on defensive line

Coaches like the depth that has been developed on the line. The Jackets have the makings of a rotation both on the interior and at the end positions that would keep players fresher over the course of games and the season.

It is progress from last season, when the Jackets were wiped out on the line by transfers and dismissals, and defensive line coach Mike Pelton called it “an act of God” that the team made it through the season with just four scholarship defensive tackles and still managed the success it did.

“I don’t know that I would say (there is) a lot (of competition on the line), but certainly I think we’ve got more depth and more defensive linemen that can play, and when you have that, that’s always a luxury,” Johnson said.

A most popular question about the team — if and when defensive tackle Jabari Hunt-Days will regain his academic eligibility? — remained unanswered at the end of the semester, although coaches were hopeful that he will be cleared at the end of the summer.

The Jackets would have been in good shape had backup Francis Kallon emerged as a dependable third player in a tackle rotation with Gotsis and Hunt-Days, which would enable Patrick Gamble to move to defensive end. Gamble demonstrated solid run-stopping ability there at the end of the 2014 season. Kallon made progress, but Gamble remained inside when the spring ended.

Improve overall defensive play

A favorite phrase of Roof’s is that a player or unit or his defense has made strides — “not to be confused with enough strides.” It was his assessment of his defense as the spring closed.

Improvement was necessary, as Tech was phenomenal at procuring takeaways — tying for 17th in the country in that category with 29 — but lagged considerably elsewhere. The Jackets were 111th nationally in yards per play (6.32), for instance.

With eight returning starters, Roof found that the level of understanding was deeper than the previous spring. As such, he liked the progress of the starting unit, but was still waiting on the second-string defense to develop.

“I think anytime you can stay within the same scheme and system with the same coaches, that’s a plus,” Johnson said. “We do have eight starters coming back there, and they’re going to have to play better.”

Maintain the hunger, attitude

Toward the end of spring practice, team members took to social media to show off the fruit of their hard work from the previous season — their rings commemorating the 11-win season culminating in their Orange Bowl victory, its first major bowl win since 1955.

That aside, though, there was little talk about the previous season as coaches endeavored to keep the team’s focus on the season ahead and understanding the effort necessary to replicate the success.

“When some of the young guys maybe didn’t have as big an impact on the season, but still the team enjoyed a great season, there’s danger in that because then they don’t understand the price you have to pay to achieve that, which the older guys that have been through that, should get that,” Roof said.

While seniors essential to Tech’s success and chemistry in the 2014 season, such as B-back Synjyn Days, safety Isaiah Johnson and linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, have signed NFL contracts, a core of leadership remains, including quarterback Justin Thomas, safety Jamal Golden, defensive tackle Adam Gotsis and cornerback D.J. White.

Players who helped themselves

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

The keys to making the most of spring practice are easy to understand, if less easily applied — stay healthy, make use of practice repetitions, absorb practices and maintain the toughness and focus to improve daily in the grind of full-pads practices with no games in sight.

The following five were able to adhere to most, if not all, of the methods to move forward during the spring.

Marcus Allen, B-back

Allen arrived as a freshman in 2012 as a B-back who had selected Tech over Nebraska and Florida State, among others. However, deep on the depth chart, he switched to linebacker after his freshman season and then, late last season. His jump to wide receiver was such an afterthought that he was still listed as a linebacker in the spring prospectus.

However, injuries to B-backs C.J. Leggett and Quaide Weimerskirch, coupled with the graduations of Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Matt Connors, brought Allen back to his original position and then elevated him into the starting position going into preseason camp.

“I feel a lot more comfortable this time coming back to it,” Allen said.

He has taken confidence from an expanded knowledge of the offense and simply the game. When he signed with Tech out of Hilliard, Fla., he had only played two years of football. Near the end of the spring, he recalled his bewilderment at the terminology he had heard from Tech coaches as a freshman. In the spring game, he ran hard and broke tackles and showed a glimpse of the potential he could have in the B-back role, possibly carrying 15 to 20 times per game.

It was an unlikely — and late — turn for Allen in the spring, but he was ready when it arrived.

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Ricky Juene, wide receiver

Like the B-back and A-back spots, opportunity came gift-wrapped for the Tech wide receivers following the graduation of starters DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller. Further, the reps were largely split among four scholarship players in the spring — returnee Micheal Summers, rising sophomores Jeune and Antonio Messick and early-enrollee freshman Harland Howell.

Jeune, a 6-foot-3, 214-pound receiver from Spring Valley, N.Y., caught coaches’ attention by making plays downfield in practice.

“He’s doing some good things, making some plays, catching the ball, picking up on some things. There’s still a lot Ricky has to learn, a lot to do — details, the little things.”

Wide receivers coach Buzz Preston

Nonetheless, he was slotted as a No. 1 receiver opposite Summers. He has the opportunity to become the sort of dynamic downfield threat that the offense has featured, namely Demaryius Thomas, Stephen Hill and Smelter.

The challenge over the summer will be for Jeune, as well as the others in the wide receiver group, to work with quarterback Justin Thomas to develop timing and trust in one another, elements that were integral in the connection that he had particularly with Smelter.

Isiah Willis, A-back

When the team released its post-spring depth chart, an unlikely — and unfamiliar — name was at the top of one of the A-back spots on the depth chart —Willis.

The walk-on junior and Broderick Snoddy will go into the preseason as the No. 1 A-backs. Snoddy was an unexpected choice himself, as he missed all of spring recovering from his broken tibia/fibula injury suffered in the Clemson game last November.

But, it makes sense. The position was bereft of experienced players, as rotation regulars Deon Hill, Tony Zenon, Charles Perkins and B.J. Bostic all graduated off of the 2014 team. Dennis Andrews was the only scholarship A-back to return with playing experience. Redshirt freshman Qua Searcy was moving from wide receiver. Clinton Lynch also is a redshirt. That gave Willis plenty of opportunity to practice time to improve and demonstrate his potential.

“Ike knows where to go,” coach Paul Johnson said of Willis.

If a player can prove to be consistent and dependable, it gives him a leg up in his bid for playing time. Willis, who played a special-teams role last season, has a shot at heavy playing time if he can keep it up in the preseason.

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

P.J. Davis, linebacker

As a returning starter and the leading tackler on the team, Davis was not necessarily in a situation where he needed to prove his worth. Regardless, Davis made an impression on coaches and teammates with the improvement that he showed through the spring.

Last season, defensive coordinator Ted Roof said, “he was too much of a cowboy. Played hard, physical, but too much of a cowboy. He has worked at playing within the framework.”

“He played fast last year, but now he really knows what he’s doing.”

Jackets safety Demond Smith

Davis’ nose for the ball and his hitting ability are among the most noticeable attributes of his game. They helped him get on the field as a freshman in 2013, when he finished with 41 tackles, and draw comparisons to former All-ACC linebacker Julian Burnett.

A more disciplined approach would likely serve to channel those traits in a more productive fashion, which would bode well for Tech. Last season, even in cowboy mode, his 119 tackles led the team and were 27 more than the second-highest total, Quayshawn Nealy’s 92. He was also second in tackles for loss with 8.5 and second in sacks with four.

“He’s just playing a lot faster,” safety Demond Smith said. “He played fast last year, but now he really knows what he’s doing.”

(Danny Karnik / Georgia Tech Athletics)

(Danny Karnik / Georgia Tech Athletics)

Shaun Kawaga, safety

The safety spots with the first string appear in solid hands with Jamal Golden and Demond Smith. However, Kagawa made enough strides to be placed behind Smith at strong safety on the two-deep depth chart.

“He’s done some good things and he’s gotten better,” Roof said.

“He’s done some good things. He’s just got to continue to develop and grow and get better. I expect him to, because he’s very prideful and it’s important to him.”

Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof

Kagawa played special teams almost exclusively last year as a freshman. He appeared in all 14 games. His journey to Tech was unusual. Kagawa, from Hawaii, originally enrolled at Army’s prep school in 2013, but left in the middle of the year and signed a letter of intent with SMU as part of its 2014 class. However, he encountered admissions issues and was released in the spring. He committed to Tech in May 2014, three months after most of his class had signed with the school.

Still, he was among the first to make it onto the playing field. Roof made a point to mix up players and positions in the spring to try to find good mixes, an experiment that included Kagawa.

“At times, we’ve put him in with the (first-string defense) just to see how he reacts to that, because it’s a different quality of reps,” Roof said. “He’s done some good things. He’s just got to continue to develop and grow and get better. I expect him to, because he’s very prideful and it’s important to him.”

Georgia Tech's projected depth charts

Hover over the images and select each position to get an analysis of the players competing to start.

Players who need more work

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Following are five players who need to show improvement between now and the season opener if they’re going to help Georgia Tech next season.

Shamire Devine, offensive guard

If he can play at his prescribed weight, the sky may be the limit for guard Devine, an uncommonly athletic lineman who during spring practice was north of 360 pounds. Devine, 6-foot-7, has battled his weight throughout his Tech career, although he performed well when given chances as the 2014 season progressed.

Devine’s spring was thwarted when he suffered a concussion early on, putting him on the sideline for several practices. Besides depriving him of practice time, it didn’t help his efforts to lose weight and improve his conditioning.

His goal for the summer is to reach 335 pounds, which would mean the ability to play for sustained stretches and also would relieve stress on his body. At 369 in early April, having gained five pounds since the concussion, Devine said, “I can feel the difference. My back hurts and my knees hurt.”

In the post-spring depth chart, Devine was placed at the No. 1 right guard spot, where Shaquille Mason rose to All-American prominence last season. In preseason camp, Devine will need to show that his conditioning has improved and that he can be counted on to power through 10-play drives. If he’s up to the challenge, it would be a boost for the line in specific and the offense in general.

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Freddie Burden, center

One of the most unsung members of the team last season, Burden was an instrumental facet of the Tech offense for his ability to reach the linebacker level to make blocks to free up B-backs on runs up the middle. Receiving honorable mention All-ACC honors in his first season as a starter was probably an understatement on his value.

What made his play more impressive was the fact that he played much of the season with a thumb injury that required surgery after the season ended.

“You’ve got to go with the team,” Burden said in the spring.

The surgery, though, caused Burden to miss much of spring practice and limited him to playing guard when he came back as he couldn’t snap the ball with his hand in a cast. When he is in preseason camp, he’ll need to reacquaint himself with quarterback Justin Thomas and also learn his new right guard (likely Shamire Devine) and help develop cohesion on a unit that was missing a number of pieces in the spring.

The same will hold true for backup center Andrew Marshall, who missed the spring recovering from an unspecified surgery.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Tyler Marcordes, linebacker

When he has been healthy, Marcordes has been a force. He had 5.5 tackles for loss over a four-game stretch at the end of the season, forcing a fumble that led to a touchdown against N.C. State and recovering a fumble in the Georgia game.

With a big body (6-foot-4, 235 pounds), he is quite suited for the strongside linebacker position, where he was designated as the starter going into the summer. However, Marcordes missed time in the spring with injuries, the same as was the case in August, leading to a slow start in the season.

“He’s been banged up awhile,” linebackers coach Andy McCollum said near the end of the spring. “Hopefully this’ll be the last round of it. He’s a guy that needs every rep, needs to see things all the time to continue to grow at the position.”

As Marcordes goes into his senior season, it will be important for him and the defense to stay healthy and accumulate as much practice time as possible, as McCollum noted.

He can be a difference-making presence when prepared, a player with a knack for big plays. The trick for Tech will be making sure he stays on the practice field.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Francis Kallon, defensive tackle

This spring, Kallon demonstrated that perhaps he was turning a corner in becoming a productive player for the Yellow Jackets. A player whose talent and potential have been obvious to those around him but whose consistency on the practice field has not always matched, Kallon showed defensive line coach Mike Pelton an increased urgency.

“It’s like the light has [turned on], and he’s got a burning desire to just get it,” Pelton said.

The delay is understandable, as Kallon is still new to football, having first tried it as a junior at Central Gwinnett High after moving from England. Last season, he played in six games and was credited with three tackles.

But coaches will undoubtedly be hoping for production in each practice, showing the sort of playmaking acumen he displayed in scrimmages in the spring.

If he can show that sort of effort, he will give coaches the option of putting him in a rotation with tackles Adam Gotsis and Jabari Hunt-Days, the rare tackle group in college football where the American-born player (Hunt-Days) is in the minority.

“Really, Francis is the key,” Johnson said. “If we can work Francis inside, then that frees Pat [Gamble] to play outside.”

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Patrick Skov, B-back

Graduate transfer Skov is expected to arrive at Tech after his graduation from Stanford in June. He’ll have time to learn the position and the offense in player-led practice sessions. But the real work of getting the feel of the mesh on option plays with quarterbacks Justin Thomas and Tim Byerly and running hard up the middle on dive plays can begin only in preseason camp.

Skov’s work at Stanford running short-yardage plays and blocking in Stanford’s blue-collar offense would seem useful preparation to play B-back in Tech’s option offense. Skov will get hit plenty and be expected to dole out his share of bruises as well.

“We’re excited to have an experienced guy coming in.”

Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson

“If we needed the one yard, he was the guy,” said John Platz, the sideline reporter for the Stanford radio broadcasts. “He obviously did that well.”

While there’s a learning curve, Skov’s three years of playing experience in the Pac-12 figures to help, and there is the fact that B-backs have produced at the position with not much time playing it, including Jonathan Dwyer and Synjyn Days.

“We’re excited to have an experienced guy coming in,” coach Paul Johnson said. “We haven’t had a day of practice, haven’t seen him play, but certainly there’s a need at that position for an experienced guy.”