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Plenty of openings for Yellow Jackets to fill
Georgia Tech must replace WR Thomas, RB Dwyer
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ATLANTA — Stephen Hill feels the burden of replacing Demaryius Thomas as Georgia Tech's No. 1 receiver.

Following any mistakes in spring practice, Hill has continued his routine of dropping on the ground for five quick push-ups.

Thomas was one of four Yellow Jacket juniors to apply for early entry to the NFL draft, so Hill now tops the team's depth chart at receiver. But the 6-foot-4 lanky sophomore knows he can't take anything for granted with just one start in 13 career games.

"If I screw up or have a missed assignment, that's just the way it's going to be out here for me," Hill said this week. "I had to get those push-ups in because I should know better."

Coming off an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a No. 13 final ranking, the Yellow Jackets' must replace Thomas, running back Jonathan Dwyer and three starters on the offensive line.

Three returning starters were missing Wednesday, too.

Josh Nesbitt, the ACC's No. 2 career leader in rushing yards by a quarterback, is inactive this spring after undergoing ankle surgery. Tevin Washington is taking most of the snaps with the No. 1 offense.

Tackles Austin Barrick (class schedule) and Phil Smith (knee injury) were out, too, which left All-ACC center Sean Bedford as the only returning starter.

"Right now there's just too much inconsistency from all of our linemen," Bedford said. "The young guys have a lot to learn, and veteran guys like myself need to help them progress as quickly as they can. I guess one way to look at it is that this is spring practice, and you're supposed to get your mistakes out the way now, but some of the stuff we're doing is unacceptable."

Coach Paul Johnson took a less critical approach after watching 11-on-11 drills. Anthony Allen, who has moved from A-back to B-back to replace Dwyer in Johnson's spread option attack, looked comfortable in breaking off some big runs.

Washington and fellow quarterbacks Jordan Luallen and found some holes in the new 3-4 front being installed by first-year defensive coordinator Al Groh.

"That's going to happen," Johnson said. "There's going to be days where one side gets a little better and there'll be days when the other side gets a little better. That's just the nature of it when our guys are playing against each other in the spring."

The Yellow Jackets ranked second nationally in rushing last season (295.4 average) and third-down percentage (52.3). Their average time of possession (33:49) ranked third.

Without Nesbitt and Dwyer, however, Georgia Tech is without the ACC's first pair of 1,000-yard rushers North Carolina's Curtis Johnson and Leon Johnson accomplished the feat in 1993.

Nesbitt watches practice from the sideline and throws a few passes to teammates, but his absence on the field in 11-on-11 drills means that Hill must wait until August to work with the All-ACC quarterback.

Hill hopes to produce something comparable to Thomas, who had the second-best season for a junior receiver at Tech since Calvin Johnson, the NFL's No. 2 overall draft pick three years ago, in 2006.

With 46 of his team's 78 receptions, Thomas had 1,154 receiving yards to rank second in the ACC. He started 36 career starts, including 24 straight, and his eight touchdowns were two more than Hill's number of catches.

Hill says he and Thomas are encouraging each other this spring. While Hill tries to hold off competition, Thomas is recovering from a broken foot sustained in a private workout a week before the NFL combine.

Georgia Tech, which plays its spring game April 24 at Bobby Dodd Stadium, also will look to Tyler Melton and Kevin Cone, the two primary blocking receivers who shared starting the spots opposite Thomas. Cone is returning from a season-ending broken ankle suffered in the Oct. 10 win at Florida State.

"It's definitely different not seeing Josh Nesbitt, (Thomas) and Dwyer out there beside you," Hill said, "But we're glad we've got other people to fill their spots. There's a lot of work to do. We're only getting started."

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