ATLANTA — Coach Paul Johnson wasn’t kidding when he said underclassmen could make or break his first season at Georgia Tech.
Now that the No. 22 Yellow Jackets (7-2, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) have won five of six heading into this week’s game at No. 19 North Carolina (6-2, 2-2), Johnson is grateful that his young players have matured quickly.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said Tuesday. “Sixteen of our 22 starters on Saturday will be freshmen or sophomores. I don’t think people realize that.”
When the Yellow Jackets started summer practice, Johnson was concerned his young players might suffer from anxiety, but he knew it made no sense to worry.
Of Georgia Tech’s 110 players, 75 are either freshmen or sophomores, but the Jackets haven’t tried to hide their youth.
Four sophomores — defensive end Derrick Morgan, running back Jonathan Dywer, quarterback Josh Nesbitt and safety Morgan Burnett — have emerged as arguably the Jackets’ most indispensable players alongside seniors Michael Johnson and Andrew Gardner.
In last week’s 31-28 win over Florida State, Georgia Tech couldn’t have won without so many contributions from underclassmen. Dwyer and Nesbitt combined for 261 yards of total offense and two touchdowns in Johnson’s triple-option attack.
Roddy Jones, a redshirt freshman, had 118 all-purpose yards. Redshirt sophomore Lucas Cox ran for his first career touchdown.
Safety Cooper Taylor had an interception, led the Jackets with 10 tackles and forced a fumble in the closing seconds that cornerback Rashaad Reid recovered in Georgia Tech’s end zone. Both players are true freshmen.
Taylor made his first career start because redshirt sophomore Dominique Reese was sidelined with a head injury.
“I just believe when your team starts to win it becomes a whole team effort,” said Burnett, whose six interceptions are tied for most in the nation. “Everyone plays together, and then good things start to happen. As far as me getting picks, it just comes from everybody on the defense helping me out.”
Indeed, Taylor credits linebacker Anthony Barnes, a redshirt sophomore, with taking on the block that cleared room for him to hit Florida State’s Marcus Sims at the 3 and pop the ball loose.
“Coaches since little league have been telling you to put your helmet on the football,” Taylor said. “It came squirting out. We got the ball and won the game.”
Against North Carolina, the Jackets will face an opponent that’s also excelled despite a paucity of seniors.
The Tar Heels, winners in four of their last five, began the season with only 11 seniors on scholarship, tied with Minnesota for fifth-fewest in the nation, but having 17 returning starters (nine on offense) offered some security.
Last month a knee injury ended the season of senior receiver Brandon Tate, the NCAA’s career leader in combined kick return yards (3,523), and a fractured ankle in September sidelined sophomore quarterback T.J. Yates for two months.
Former third-string quarterback Cameron Sexton has emerged as a dependable starter, leading North Carolina to a 4-1 record since Yates went down. Hakeem Nicks, who leads the ACC and ranks fifth in the nation with an average of 103.3 yards receiving, dominated Boston College with a four-touchdown performance last week.
The Heels’ defense is tied with California for the national lead in interceptions (17) and stands atop the ACC with six non-offensive touchdowns.
“When you look at a complete team — offense, defense and special teams — they might be as good as there is in the league,” Johnson said of Carolina. “They have gotten contributions from every area. I think their quarterback is playing very efficient, and defensively they’re really formidable. The two safeties are big-time players (Trimane Goddard and Deunta Williams). The front seven is very athletic, and the inside guys are 300-plus. There’s a reason why they’re playing as good as they are.”