ATLANTA — Coach Paul Johnson watched Georgia Tech endure some growing pains Saturday.
Not that he was surprised as the Yellow Jackets wore pads and hit each other for the first time this spring, but Johnson saw plenty of areas for improvement in a live practice at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"The ball was on the ground a zillion times," Johnson said. "When you play a lot of guys, that's going to happen. Some poor decisions. There's enough to fix on every side to be concerned. The first part of practice, the offense won. The second part, the defense won."
After Georgia Tech ended last season by losing five of its last seven games, Johnson doesn't want his players to wait too long to correct their mistakes.
Quarterback-center exchanges were the biggest problem for the offense during the three-hour practice. Big plays hurt the defense.
Spring practice might seem monotonous to fans and media, but starting center Jay Finch knows that bad habits in practice can take root in games if a team isn't careful.
Finch, a rising junior, remembers when Georgia Tech piled up 512 yards in 92 plays against Georgia two seasons ago, but three fumbles led to touchdowns in a loss to the hated Bulldogs. The Yellow Jackets ended 2010 with 20 lost fumbles — tied for most in the nation.
"We still have the rest of camp to fix everything and all summer, but when fall rolls around, we're not going to get a second chance against, say, Clemson on the goal line or whatever," Finch said. "We need to take care of it now, and I look forward to seeing how we finish come the fall."
Three centers are working this spring with five to six quarterbacks, a group led by incumbent starter Tevin Washington, second-teamer Synjyn Days and redshirt freshman Vad Lee.
"There's a lot to adjust to sometimes in terms of cadence and where he each guy wants the ball snapped," Finch said. "Some want it close in, some want it close up. For some guys who've never practiced that much, it's a big adjustment when you're live (hitting in pads) for the first time in spring. That's just the reality."
Johnson took action to correct the ball security, accuracy and tackling problems in special teams over the last two years by hiring Dave Walkosky this month from the Canadian Football League.
The Yellow Jackets need a significant change after last year, when they gave up touchdowns in a loss at Miami on a fumbled punt return and a long kickoff return. They ended the season having made just 11 of 18 field-goal attempts.
Among 120 FBS teams last season, Georgia Tech ranked 106th in kickoff returns. Its net punting team ranked 54th, and its kickoff return defense was 61st.
Johnson, who had never hired a full-time special teams coach in his first three seasons at Tech, is pleased to have his special teamers working under one assistant coach.
"I mean it wasn't like (players) were just standing over in the corner by themselves before," Johnson said. "They had stuff to do. You know, hopefully it will help to have somebody with them all the time. We'll see."
Defensively, Georgia Tech must overcome the loss of linebacker Julian Burnett, the team's leading tackler in 2010 and '11, after the senior linebacker was ruled out for the season with an undisclosed injury.
Junior linebacker Jeremiah Attachou said Burnett still spends plenty of time in the locker room, in the film room and at practice tutoring younger players, but his leadership void still must be filled on the field.
For Attachou, who led the Jackets with six sacks and 11½ tackles for lost yardage, it's imperative to set high standards in spring practice. A little example goes a long way.
"Simple things like coming off the ball, pass rush, your effort level — that's my biggest thing this spring practice," Attachou said. "We always face the triple-option (in practice), but the one thing you have control of is your effort and how tough you play the game. Running to the ball is one thing that carries over, taking proper angles against this type of offense, and I've made similar plays in spring practice that I make in the season, basically with effort."
Georgia Tech has a relatively young team. Just 13 of the 90-plus players on the roster are seniors, but Finch believes everyone will be ready to open the season Sept. 3 at Virginia Tech.
"I think we're feeling it out as a team," Finch said. "It's kind of like people are coming into roles as leaders. It's one thing that we just can't get down on each other with fumbles and stuff. You've got to have a short memory because we know it's not live yet. That's why it's spring. We're getting stuff knocked out."