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Jackets coach looking for special teams improvement
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Georgia Tech’s defense players gang tackle Mississippi State’s Robert Elliott on Sept. 20 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. - photo by Johnny Crawford

ATLANTA — Coach Paul Johnson is tired of seeing lackluster performances from Georgia Tech’s special teams.

So when the Yellow Jackets (4-1) host Gardner-Webb (2-3) today, Johnson expects to see immediate improvement in the kicking game.

"Right now, I’d say it’s unacceptable the way we’ve been playing on special teams." Johnson said this week. "Other than the kickoff team, the rest of the teams are fairly atrocious."

Most Tech fans probably will care more about their team’s quarterback scenario. Calvin Booker, a third-string senior, could start at quarterback with Josh Nesbitt (hamstring) and Flowery Branch grad Jaybo Shaw (mild concussion) nursing injuries.

Johnson indicated that he might wait until an hour before the 3:30 p.m. kickoff to see if Nesbitt or Shaw is ready, but the first-year coach seems more concerned about special teams.

Though Gardner-Webb is a FCS school from the Big South Conference, Johnson wants to see better blocking and running on kickoff returns, a category in which the Jackets rank last in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 17.7 average.

It’s possible that Tech could use Marcus Wright, a true freshman with no experience, to return kickoffs. Johnson brought up Wright’s name earlier this week while discussing a lack of depth at running back.

The Jackets had hoped to redshirt Wright, but now that he’s needed on offense, Johnson sees no reason why he couldn’t help on special teams. Jonathan Dwyer, who leads the ACC in rushing, has teamed with receiver Tyler Melton on kickoff returns, but Johnson likely would prefer to use arguably Tech’s best offensive player only at B-back in his triple-option attack.

Melton, who has five catches for 53 yards, is the team’s only true freshman to start on offense or defense. He was stuffed badly in last week’s 27-0 win over Duke, which held him to minus-2 yards on 4 attempts.

With just 3.6 yards per punt return, the Jackets rank 11th in the ACC, and they’re 10th in net punting with a 32.8 average.

"We’re going to change some personnel and we’re going to change the way we do it," Johnson said. "We haven’t done a very good job of coaching ‘em, in my opinion, and we haven’t done a very good job of executing."

Kicker Scott Blair, who has struggled on field-goal (just 5-for-9) and extra-point attempts (15-for-17), was removed as the punter before the Duke game. Chandler Anderson, a red-shirt freshman and former walk-on, took his place, punting three times for a 33.3 net average.

"We haven’t punted a lot, but still not good," Johnson said. "We can be better than that."

Now that Blair, who missed four of his first five field-goal attempts, no longer has to work as the primary punter, Johnson believes his accuracy will improve.

"He’s kind of gotten in more of a groove," Johnson said. "At least he’s making more. There were a couple of extra points (against Duke) that were iffy. That’s why I wanted to kick the (field goal) at the end to get him some confidence because we’ve been struggling a little bit."

Gardner-Webb kicker Ryan Gates has done well this year, particularly in a 49-33 home loss two weeks ago to Sam Houston State, which watched him hit four field goals, including one from 47 yards and another from 42.

Quarterback Stan Doolittle has completed 102 of 165 passes for 1,022 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions.

Dobson Collins leads Gardner-Webb with 31 catches for 325 yards and three TDs. Running backs Philip Peoples and Patrick Hall have combined for 510 net yards rushing and seven TDs.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs have never played Georgia Tech. The last time they in Atlanta was in 2000, beating Morris Brown, 24-19.

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