Jackets have several question marks heading into opener
— Georgia Tech is still sorting out its depth chart with the season opener four days away.
As the Yellow Jackets prepare to host Alcorn State of the FCS, coach Paul Johnson won’t be surprised if it takes a couple of games to settle some positions.
“You don’t really know until you play other people for a couple of weeks and get a better feel for it,” Johnson said Tuesday.
Shawn Davis has a temporary hold on the kicking job. The offensive line is still waiting for Kenny Cooper to return.
Juanyeh Thomas won the kickoff and punt return jobs but hurt an ankle in practice and might not play this week.
Reserve quarterback Lucas Johnson went down with a seasonending lower leg injury a couple of weeks ago. Tobias Oliver is the primary backup to starter TaQuon Marshall, but the injury has caused the Jackets to take a long look at talented freshman James Graham, whom they’d prefer to redshirt.
KirVonte Benson is the most notable name on Johnson’s radar this week, and not because of injury. Benson, the ACC’s fourth-leading rusher a year ago, is benched for the first quarter of the opener for what the coach called a minor team infraction. Johnson expects Benson will still get to play plenty of snaps.
Either Jordan Mason or Jerry Howard will start in Benson’s place.
“KirVonte was a minor issue, but I’ve challenged our guys this fall camp for minor things, for missing a breakfast check, missing class,” Johnson said. “We used to run at 6 a.m. I’m tired of that. I’m through running at 6. It doesn’t seem to register, so we just won’t play him. We’ll see if that registers.”
Johnson is beginning his 11th season at Georgia Tech and 22nd overall as a head coach. The Jackets went 5-6 last year and missed going to a bowl for the second time in three years.
Davis has beaten out Brenton King to handle kickoffs, field goals and extra points, but he has a short leash. Johnson said throughout the last four weeks that he’s been disappointed with all of the kickers.
Davis won the job last year in camp but suffered a season-ending knee injury trying to make a tackle at Miami. He went 2 for 4 on field goals and missed one of 20 extra-point attempts. King took over and went 5 for 6 on field goals and missed one of 16 extrapoint tries.
“I think like I said last year, I think Shawn’s capable,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to get some consistency out of him. You’ve got Brenton King who could possibly kick, and we’ve got a couple of other walk-on kids, too. Maybe they can kick. We’ll see.”
Cooper is expected to return to practice from a foot injury next week when the Jackets prepare to face South Florida in Tampa. Jahaziel Lee will start at center this week and Parker Braun is set at left guard, but Johnson says the other jobs are less certain.
Cooper and Lee will start at South Florida barring injuries. Johnson just isn’t sure who will be in what spot. Will Bryan, Zac Quinney and Brad Morgan are listed as starters against Alcorn State.
“All those kids are going to play and then as you start to play other competition and you get into two or three games, if there is a huge dropoff, then you’ll have a starter,” Johnson said.
If Thomas can’t play this week, Brad Stewart will handle punt returns, a role he held the last two seasons. Jaytlin Askew, who won a cornerback job, will handle kickoff returns with Nathan Cottrell getting a chance, too.
Bama’s reign causes SEC foes to lose patience in coaches KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
— The decade-long chase to catch Alabama has caused patience to wear thin across the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
As Nick Saban and Alabama chase their sixth national title in 10 seasons , five of the SEC’s other 13 programs have new coaches. It represents the league’s highest turnover since 1946, when the SEC had six new coaches.
The new faces this year include Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, Arkansas’ Chad Morris, Florida’s Dan Mullen and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt. Mississippi’s Matt Luke was an interim coach last year but was hired on a permanent basis after the season.
“I don’t think there’s one reason for the turnover,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “It’s just a wide range of things. I think the competitiveness in this conference with the records and success we’ve had, certainly others want to experience that same success.”
SEC Network analyst Gene Chizik believes there is one: Alabama’s supremacy. Rivals look at the Crimson Tide’s success and wonder why they can’t put together a similar run.
“Look at all the teams out there that think they should be — not beat, (but) be like — Alabama,” said Chizik, the coach of Auburn’s 2010 national championship team. “A&M thinks they should. Auburn thinks they should. LSU thinks they should. Georgia thinks they should. Florida thinks they should.
“I think that obviously the expectations have grown with salaries of coaches, and Alabama being the standard in the league has definitely put pressure on everybody to win.”
The flurry of SEC coaching changes continues a trend. Only four of the league’s 14 coaches — Saban, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops — have more than two full seasons of experience in their current positions.
The only league that has undergone more coaching turnover during that span is the American Athletic Conference. The difference is that most of the American coaches left voluntarily to take higher-profile jobs. Virtually all the SEC coaching changes have been firings, the exception coming when Florida hired Mullen away from Mississippi State.
SEC coaches understand the competitive nature of the league and how it can impact job security.
“The conference is what it is,” Stoops said. “Might as well be the AFC East.”
Fisher has the most security of the new coaches, as Texas A&M lured him away from Florida State with a 10-year contract that guarantees him $75 million . Most coaches don’t have that kind of leverage and must realize the risks that come with coaching in the SEC.
“People have set a very high standard in this league and have committed resources to being successful,” Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said. “When you’re not, you (try) something else.”
Lately, nobody has set a higher standard than Alabama.
“At this point in time, Alabama is the gold standard,” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said. “Florida was the gold standard a few years back. Tennessee won a national championship 20 years ago. Things are going to go in cycles. Alabama’s cycle has lasted longer than most, but I think you make your decisions for what you need, not just because one program has this or that.”
Some schools have tried to replicate Saban’s success by hiring one of his former assistants .
Pruitt and Georgia’s Kirby Smart are former Alabama defensive coordinators. Fisher and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp were assistants on Saban’s LSU staffs in the early 2000s, with Muschamp also following Saban to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 2005.
Georgia’s fared the best with a former Saban assistant. The Bulldogs won the SEC title last season before losing the national championship game in overtime to Alabama.
The Saban coaching tree hasn’t been as fruitful for other SEC rivals. Florida dismissed Muschamp in 2014 and replaced him with former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who lost his job last year . Pruitt marks Tennessee’s second try with a former Saban assistant; Derek Dooley was fired in 2012.
All the recent upheaval in the coaching ranks has created an unusual dynamic in the SEC, with no coach clearly on the hot seat as the season opens.
Chizik says it’s unlikely to stay that way for long. Chizik was fired at Auburn just two years after his national championship season.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Chizik said. “As we kick off in early September, in this league I would say there are very few ( SEC coaches) or none who are probably on the hot seat. That can absolutely change by the end of October.”
— AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson (left) talks with receiver Alan Bussoletti during a recent practice.