ATLANTA — Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson will open the season knowing what to expect from his spread option offense and the team's new defensive scheme.
As they have since he took charge in 2008, the Yellow Jackets will run the ball about 85 percent of the time with Johnson calling the plays. The defense, now aligned in a 3-4 base front under coordinator Nate Woody, has been designed to create more pressure and turnovers, having worked all offseason to get quicker and more agile in ball pursuit.
After Tech hit rock bottom on special teams last year, though, Johnson knows the Jackets' fate could hinge on how well they perform in that phase.
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. Tech allowed six kickoff returns of at least 40 yards and ranked 65th in punt returns and 89th in punt coverage. The latter was particularly surprising — and disappointing — because Pressley Harvin III ranked second in the Atlantic Coast Conference with an average of 44 yards per punt last season as a freshman.
As for place-kicks, Shawn Davis and Brenton King combined to hit seven field goals in 10 attempts and missed four PATs. With the season 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 he incurred a season-ending injury at Miami during the fifth game of the season.
"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 last season, but his longest return was 21 yards in 16 attempts.
Johnson still isn't sure who will handle kickoff returns. He tried four different players last year and had a steady turnover in blockers, too, though nothing seemed to work.
Johnson has had just three losing seasons at Tech, but two of those are in the past three years — a stretch in which the Jackets are 17-19 overall while enduring Atlantic Coast Conference win-loss records of 1-7 (2015), 4-4 (2016) and 4-4 (2017).
As for that familiar offense, 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 43 of his 116 passes (37 percent) last year and needs to get better.
Stewart and junior Jalen Camp are the starting wide receivers, with freshman Malachi Carter and redshirt sophomore Stephen Dolphus pushing for playing time. A-backs Nathan Cottrell, Omahri Jarrett, Clinton Lynch and Qua Searcy will have chances to be involved in the passing game, too.
On defense, the Jackets hope Woody's scheme has a quick impact. They haven't ranked better than 107th nationally in sacks the past 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 Saint-Amour, who are the leaders up front.
Woody is the fifth defensive coordinator during Johnson's tenure at Tech, coming from the same role at Appalachian State and following Tech alum Ted Roof, whose second stint as an assistant at his alma mater ended late last December when he joined Dave Doeren's staff at North Carolina State.