Jack­ets have sev­eral ques­tion marks head­ing into opener

Calhoun Times - - SPORTS SATURDAY - By Ge­orge Henry

— 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.

DANNY KARNIK / GT Ath­let­ics

Ge­or­gia Tech head coach Paul John­son (left) talks with re­ceiver Alan Bus­so­letti dur­ing a re­cent prac­tice.

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