Spe­cial teams could make or break Ge­or­gia Tech’s sea­son

Calhoun Times - - SPORTS SATURDAY - By Ge­orge Henry

— Coach Paul John­son will open the sea­son know­ing what to ex­pect from his spread op­tion of­fense and the team’s new de­fen­sive scheme.

Ge­or­gia Tech, as it’s done since John­son took charge in 2008, will run the ball about 85 per­cent of the time with John­son call­ing the plays.

The de­fense, now aligned in a 3-4 un­der co­or­di­na­tor Nate Woody, has been de­signed to cre­ate more pres­sure and turnovers. The Yel­low Jack­ets worked all off­sea­son to get quicker and more ag­ile in ball pur­suit.

But af­ter Ge­or­gia Tech hit rock bot­tom on spe­cial teams last year, John­son knows that 2018 could hinge on how well the Yel­low Jack­ets per­form in the kick­ing game.

They went 5-6 last sea­son, miss­ing a bowl for the sec­ond time in three years, in large part be­cause they ranked 99th nationally in kick­off returns and 115th in kick­off cov­er­age.

Ge­or­gia Tech al­lowed six kick­off returns of at least 40 yards. They ranked 65th in punt returns and 89th in punt cov­er­age, the lat­ter cat­e­gory a dis­ap­point­ment given that re­turn­ing punter Pres­ley Harvin ranked sec­ond in the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence with an av­er­age of 44 yards.

Kick­ers Shawn Davis and Brenton King com­bined to hit only seven field goals in just 10 at­tempts and to miss four ex­tra-points.

With the opener just two weeks away, the team has yet to set­tle on a kicker with Davis, King and walk-on fresh­man Wes­ley Wells com­pet­ing for field-goal, ex­tra-point and kick­off du­ties. Davis won the job in camp last year but suf­fered a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury in the fifth game at Mi­ami.

“I have no idea who the kicker’s go­ing to be,” John­son said Wed­nes­day. “It’s been a lit­tle less than stel­lar in camp, just to be hon­est. We’ll work it out. We’ve still got a cou­ple of weeks. We’re chart­ing ev­ery kick and we’ll fig­ure out who gives us the best chance.”

The ba­sics, like ac­cu­racy, aren’t the only prob­lem.

“It’s not get­ting them off, al­though some­times it is,” John­son said. “Yes­ter­day the hold­ers dropped two.”

Se­nior re­ceiver Brad Ste­wart is first on the depth chart to re­turn punts for the third straight year. He was steady with no fum­bles but his long­est re­turn was 21 yards in 16 at­tempts last sea­son.

John­son still isn’t sure who will han­dle kick­off returns. He tried four dif­fer­ent play­ers last year and had a steady turnover in block­ers.

Noth­ing seemed to work.

Some other things to watch as Ge­or­gia Tech tries to earn a win­ning ACC record for the first time in four years:

GET­TING BETTER

Se­nior TaQuon Mar­shall isn’t the first Jack­ets quar­ter­back to spend the off­sea­son work­ing re­peat­edly with re­ceivers to im­prove his ac­cu­racy. His pri­mary jobs are run­ning, hand­ing off, pitch­ing the ball and avoid­ing fum­bles, but Mar­shall com­pleted just 37 per­cent of his 116 passes last year and needs to get better.

Ste­wart and Jalen Camp are the start­ing wide­outs with Stephen Dol­phus and fresh­man Malachi Carter push­ing for snaps. A-backs Qua Searcy, Clin­ton Lynch, Nathan Cot­trell and Omahri Jar­rett will get chances, too.

WOODY’S WORLD

The Jack­ets hope Woody’s 3-4 scheme has a quick im­pact. They haven’t ranked better than 107th in sacks over the last three years. Last sea­son they were 62nd in de­fen­sive pass ef­fi­ciency, had just six in­ter­cep­tions to tie for 110th and ranked 124th in turnovers.

The only sure starters at this point are inside line­backer Brant Mitchell and ends Des­mond Branch and An­ree Sain­tA­mour are the lead­ers up front.

HOLD THAT LINE

Ja­haziel Lee has seized a start­ing job fol­low­ing cen­ter Kenny Cooper’s foot in­jury. John­son has yet to de­cide where Cooper will play when he returns. It will be ei­ther at cen­ter or guard with Lee tak­ing the other spot.

ON SCHED­ULE

Af­ter be­gin­ning the sea­son against FCS Al­corn State, the Jack­ets visit South Florida and Pitts­burgh be­fore pow­er­house Clem­son vis­its Sept. 22. They get a re­prieve of sorts against Bowl­ing Green the next week, then it’s six straight ACC games be­fore the sea­son fi­nale Nov. 24 in Athens against Ge­or­gia.

File-MIKE STE­WART / The As­so­ci­ated Press

Ge­or­gia Tech coach Paul John­son walks the field prior to the team’s spring game this past April.

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