ATLANTA — Derrick Morgan knows Georgia Tech's defensive line will have major holes to fill in 2009.
The junior end welcomes the role that's been asked of him by coach Paul Johnson, coordinator Dave Wommack and line coach Giff Smith.
"I'm just doing what's asked of me," Morgan said after the Yellow Jackets finished their second spring practice Wednesday. "I've been asked to be more of a leader on and off the field. I'm taking that responsibility."
Georgia Tech is coming off a 9-4 season in its first season under Johnson and Wommack. Though the Yellow Jackets are loaded at several positions, they lost three seniors on the defensive line — Michael Johnson, Vance Walker and Darryl Richard — who combined for 100 career starts and 100 tackles for loss.
"I think we've got a group of guys that really pay attention to detail and try to be fundamentally sound," Paul Johnson said. "We may not have the same type of physical specimens that we've had there, but I think we've got some good players."
On just the second day of spring practice, it's far too early for Morgan to gauge whether opponents will double-team this year.
He's one of eight starters returning from a defense that ranked 25th in the nation in total yards (allowing an average of 313.5 yards) and 28th in scoring (20.3 points).
Morgan, who started all 13 games last year and has appeared in 25 career games, had seven sacks for a unit that tied for 18th nationally. His 9.5 tackles for lost yards helped pace a defense that ranked 13th.
Among the six returning lettermen are tackle Ben Anderson and end Robert Hall, who have combined for 48 games played but no starts.
Jason Peters and Anthony Egbuniwe have limited experience. Antonio Wilson returns as a redshirt sophomore.
"I think we've got a lot of potential," Morgan said, "but we've just got to come out here and work every day because we've got a chip on our shoulder this year."
The Jackets' incoming freshman class includes three ends. Emmanuel Dieke, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound end Morgan calls "Too Tall" in comparing him to former Dallas Cowboys star Ed Jones, enrolled in January and worked Wednesday with the first- and second-team defense.
"I'm trying to learn the schemes and just get used to everything," said Dieke, who signed from nearby North Clayton High School. "A whole learning experience, I guess you could say. I'm just trying to prove myself."
Georgia Tech's first practice in full pads is 9 a.m. Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, though heavy rain could move the workout to the Atlanta Falcons' indoor facility in Flowery Branch.
Until the coaches can see them knocks heads with offensive linemen, Anderson believes some of the Jackets' unproven players will need to be patient.
"You really can't show the coaches what you can do without pads on," Anderson said. "It's not all footwork. You have to nose-up and be the tougher guy."
Johnson knows what Tech can expect from Morgan, Anderson and Hall, but he agrees that the staff will have an easier time grading the roster on film after Saturday.
"In shorts, it's hard to gauge defensive linemen," Johnson said. "But we've got some young guys that we're excited about mixed in with some guys that have played a little bit. I think it'll sort itself out."