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QB play, offensive line inexperience among things to watch in Tech's spring game

POSTED: April 17, 2014 7:46 p.m.

Georgia Tech football fans will get their final look of the spring tonight when the Yellow Jackets close out drills with their spring game inside Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. The split-squad game is slated for 7 p.m. and is being tabbed as “Friday Night on The Flats.”

The Yellow Jackets finished 7-6 last season and made an appearance in the Music City Bowl, losing to Ole Miss 25-17. The Yellow Jackets return just 11 starters from last year’s team.

As Georgia Tech concludes spring practice, here are five things to watch heading into tonight’s spring game.

Justin Thomas at QB

The redshirt sophomore is the favorite to become the Yellow Jackets’ new starting quarterback after last year’s starter, Vad Lee, transferred to James Madison University.

The 5-foot-11 Thomas is known for his quickness, an attribute Georgia Tech outs on its athletics website by saying he “may be the quickest quarterback in college football.” Thomas came from an option-style system at Prattville (Ala.) High, but has also shown he has better arm strength than Lee, who completed just 45.6 percent of his passes a season ago.

Thomas has shown promise at times during the spring, but he’s also struggled. Following an April 5 scrimmage, head coach Paul Johnson called the Yellow Jackets’ quarterback play “horrendous.”

Behind Thomas is Tim Byerly, a redshirt junior transfer from Middle Tennessee State, and redshirt freshman Ty Griffin.

Offensive line play

The graduation of three fifth-year seniors has left the Yellow Jackets rebuilding their offensive front this spring. While Georgia Tech still has All-ACC performer Shaquille Mason up front to anchor the inexperienced line, the Yellow Jackets will still be forced to play some untested players. A pair of redshirt freshman, Shamire Devine and Chris Griffin, are both expected to get a shot at starting jobs.

After a scrimmage this spring, offensive line coach Mike Sewak said the O-line wasn’t “creating big enough holes.”

Inexperience could be a major issue for the Jackets, who, even with an experienced line last season, only averaged 5.5 yards per rush attempt last season, the lowest in six seasons under Johnson.

To help alleviate the stress of inexperienced players on the offensive front, Tech coaches have considered moving defensive linemen to the offensive side. The Yellow Jackets currently have 11 D-linemen on scholarship.

Defensive progression

It’s Year 2 under defensive coordinator Ted Roof, and the Yellow Jackets are excited about the progress the unit is making this spring.

Roof has often credited his defense for its tempo and intensity throughout multiple scrimmages this spring. Tech made strides in the first full season under Roof in 2013, after firing defensive coordinator Al Groh in the middle of the 2012 season.

After allowing 28.3 points and 144 yards rushing per game in 2012, the Yellow Jackets held opponents to just 22.8 points and 115 yards rushing per game last season.

Three-year starter Quayshawn Nealy will be the go-to player for the Jackets defense. The senior had a sack and an interception return for a touchdown in one of the Yellow Jackets’ scrimmages this spring.

Player to Watch

Travis Custis was one of the most highly touted players in the Yellow Jackets’ recruiting class in 2013, though he officially did not enroll until this January.

Custis will certainly get his chance at becoming the main running back this season, given the fact that Yellow Jackets lost the top four rushers from last year’s team, including senior backs David Sims (884 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Robert Godhigh (744 yards, 7 TDs).

On a team that features multiple running back options, Custis could be a go-to threat and see ample running opportunities. In high school, Custis was a first-team All-State selection in Class AAA after leading Lovejoy High to the state title game in 2012, when he rushed for 2,118 yards and 35 touchdowns. As a junior in 2011, he rushed for more thanh 1,800 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Johnson’s future at Tech

Is this the final spring game for Tech head coach Paul Johnson? It could be if the Yellow Jackets don’t perform at a high level in 2014. Johnson was rumored to be on the hot seat following last year, but he was given another season at Georgia Tech to turn things around.

Tonight’s spring game could be a good indication of what Tech fans should expect come this fall, and if Johnson truly is leading the program in a positive direction.

Since being named Tech’s coach prior to the 2008 season, Georgia Tech has only enjoyed one season with double-digit wins. It came in Johnson’s second season on The Flats, when he guided the Yellow Jackets to an ACC championship and an 11-3 record that ended with a loss to Miami in the Orange Bowl.

Although Georgia Tech has finished with at least a share of first place in the ACC Coastal Division four times in the past six seasons, the Yellow Jackets have been characterized by a mediocre record since 2009. In each of the past five seasons, the Jackets have failed to win more than eight games in a season, and have one losing record, which came in 2010.

Another factor that doesn’t bode well for Johnson is Georgia Tech’s record against rival Georgia.

Johnson is just 1-5 against the Bulldogs, including a 41-34 overtime loss last season in a game that saw the Yellow Jackets jump out to a 20-0 lead.


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