ATLANTA — Paul Johnson believes he has something to prove. He's hoping his Georgia Tech players feel the same way.
He's entering his fourth season as Georgia Tech's coach with a new quarterback and a new reason for motivation.
Johnson was accustomed to success, with seven straight seasons of eight or more wins before a 6-7 finish last year.
The losing record was painful enough. Then this summer Georgia Tech was hit with NCAA penalties that included four years of probation and vacating the 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
The Yellow Jackets coach is hoping for a rebound, but he must replace B-back Anthony Allen and quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, the top two rushers in his spread option offense.
Tevin Washington is the favorite to take over at quarterback.
Georgia Tech lost five of their last six games last year, including their second straight loss to rival Georgia. It was Johnson's first losing season since a 2-10 record in his 2002 debut at Navy.
"Last season didn't end the way we'd like for it to," he said. "We feel like we've got a thing or two to prove this year. Hopefully we're ready to come out swinging."
Johnson wants to restore the program's pride. He also wants revenge.
"Revenge is a great motivator for those that care," he said. "I hope you've got enough guys that care."
A-back Roddy Jones says Johnson need not worry.
"Definitely. I think the whole team cares," Jones said. "The whole team remembers the games we lost and how we lost and they're excited this year to get back at those teams. I think Kansas is the first one on our schedule that we lost to. Guys know that and they're excited about it."
Redshirt freshman Synjyn Days and freshman Vad Lee are competing with Washington, a junior who started the final four games last season after Joshua Nesbitt suffered a broken arm.
Nesbitt, a powerful and productive runner, was the starter in each of Johnson's first three seasons at Georgia Tech.
Days had a strong spring game. Lee earned early praise from Johnson in preseason practice.
The Yellow Jackets need steady play from their quarterback after fumbles — always a concern in the option attack — and poor passing hurt the team last season.
Georgia Tech's 20 lost fumbles in 2010 tied for the nation's lead. Nesbitt and Washington completed only 38.1 percent of their passes, easily the worst completion percentage of the 120 FBS teams.
"We've got to be better completing passes, and certainly part of it is throwing the ball," Johnson said.
"I think the more you do the better you are at anything you do. We work on passing a lot in practice. It's not like we don't ever throw the ball."
Washington completed 25 of 61 passes (41 percent) for 417 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He ran for 514 yards and four touchdowns.
Jones and Orwin Smith, the team's leading returning rusher, lead a deep group of A-backs.
Johnson looks to his B-back, who lines up behind the quarterback like a fullback, to lead the rushing attack. Preston Lyons, a senior, and redshirt freshman Charles Perkins entered preseason practice as the top B-backs. Other candidates include David Sims, a converted quarterback, and Richard Watson.
Perkins could be the best candidate to emerge as Johnson's next 1,000-yard rusher.
"They'll probably all get a chance at some point," Johnson said.
Improvement is expected in the second year of defensive coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 scheme. There were problems last season, especially against the run, as Georgia Tech gave up 25.2 points per game, ninth in the ACC.
Five starters return on defense, including all three linemen and linebacker Julian Burnett.
"I have every reason to think they'll be better than a year ago, and if we're going to be better, they'll have to be," Johnson said of his defense. "We need them to play better than they played a year ago."
The NCAA penalties were a surprise when announced in July.
Georgia Tech also was fined $100,000 by the NCAA, which said the school should have declared receiver Demaryius Thomas ineligible in 2009. The NCAA said Thomas accepted $312 worth of clothing from former Yellow Jackets quarterback Calvin Booker, who was working for a sports agent.
Thomas denied the charge and Georgia Tech is appealing the penalties.