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Georgia Tech at Clemson Q&A Preview

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We’re pretty anxious for football. If you are too, you’ll enjoy this Q&A with Joey Weaver.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We spoke with Joey Weaver, co-host of “Basketball Conference: ACC Football Podcast.” A Georgia Tech grad, he has given us some great insight on the Yellow Jackets and our season opening matchup. We recommend you check out his podcast which covers ACC football as a whole. There aren’t a ton of ACC football podcasts, and this is certainly one worth checking out. Just search “Basketball Conference” on your podcast app of choice, or if you’re reading this on your phone click here. You can also follow him on twitter: @FTRSJoey.

STS: Paul Johnson had an 11-year run at Georgia Tech. It included two appearances and one win in the ACCCG as well as two appearances and one win in the Orange Bowl. There were two 11-win seasons, two nine-win seasons, five-seasons of six to eight wins, and two seasons of fewer than six wins. Both of those down years came in the past four seasons and he left with the cupboard somewhat bare as Geoff Collins now faces a challenging rebuild. The ACC Championship was also stripped from the record books by the NCAA. How do you think Paul Johnson’s legacy will look from a GT fan’s perspective once we get a little distance from it and can judge with a clear view?

JW: Honestly, 10 years from now, I expect Georgia Tech fans to look back on the CPJ era with a relative fondness, and more fondly than many do now. Johnson arrived at Georgia Tech late in the 2000’s, right at a time when the sport was starting to change quickly and drastically due to a major increase in money being poured into football programs by a number of schools around the country. That continued over Johnson’s tenure everywhere around him, but was not the case at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets’ AD who hired Johnson (some guy named Radakovich) was not particularly proactive about making sure his program would have access to resources comparable to others, and then the following AD Mike Bobinski effectively tried to actively limit the program’s resources as a way to push Johnson out so that he could make his own hire in football. Johnson couldn’t hire the DC he wanted to hire at multiple points under either AD (due to GTAA stinginess), his program was one of the last in the Power-5 to get any additional personnel to support in recruiting, and he couldn’t renovate the locker room even though he himself had gone out and gotten enough commitment from boosters to do so. Put simply: Johnson spent a lot of his tenure fighting with both hands tied behind his back. Insiders would tell you that he was fed up, and incredibly close to straight-up quitting at multiple points, and probably would have if not for Bobinski being hired away by Purdue.

Consider all of that, and then go back and consider his track record. Despite all of it, he still finished 83-60 and only once finished below .500 in ACC play. He finished fourth all-time among head coaches at Georgia Tech in wins, and tied for fourth in winning percentage. His teams won an Orange Bowl, and played in another. His teams beat Georgia in Athens three times. His teams won the Coastal Division twice, and a share of it a third time. His teams won an ACC Championship (and any Georgia Tech fan would tell you that the NCAA vacating that conference title is one of the biggest piles of garbage in that garbage-heap of a governing body) and played for two others, losing one of those title games in the last minute by 2 points to the undefeated reigning National Champions.

I’m not going to act like Johnson was perfect, or that there weren’t things he could’ve done better, or that he couldn’t have done a better job of adjusting to the times. Clearly there were things he could’ve changed, and you’re already seeing them change under Geoff Collins’ staff. (The new regime uses social media far more effectively and works harder in recruiting, they’ve been far more intentional about culture and brand, and (of course) they seem a bit more flexible on fitting the scheme to the players.) Johnson was also probably too loyal to some of his assistants, especially later in his tenure, where he would’ve been better served firing them and hiring replacements but instead settled for maintaining relationships knowing how close he was to retirement.

All things considered, I think we’ll ultimately have to look back on CPJ as a success on the Flats. He had a lot of things working against him (and Georgia Tech isn’t the easiest job in the world to begin with), but still managed to accomplish a ton.

STS: Georgia Tech is expected to bring up the rear in the ACC Coastal and along with Louisville be a bottom-dweller in the ACC in 2019. Not only is GT transitioning to a traditional offense, but they were likely going to have a rebuilding year anyway as only four offensive starters and three defensive starters return. For year one, what are the things that motivate you to tune in each week and what do you realistically hope to see this year to lend optimism for the future?

I’ll start by saying that I’m not 100% convinced that Georgia Tech will finish the season in last place in the Coastal. I know that’s been the tone of the discussion nationally, and I certainly don’t see them winning the division, but I do think those media rankings are probably influenced in some part by an over-representation of North Carolina media members.

But, let’s say things really do go as poorly as many expect and Georgia Tech finishes 3-9. If I knew that before the season, I’d still tune in each week to see these three things:

1) New Defensive Scheme: Yes, I’m more interested to see the defense than the offense. The Georgia Tech offensive scheme has been the whole focus nationally given that for so long it’s been so unique and given them such an identity, and it’ll be so distinctly different from last year that it would take something like LSU running the Air Raid to even compete in terms of looking so new. I’m curious to see the defense though, in that the defensive scheme has secretly been Georgia Tech’s biggest on-field issue for around a decade now. Ted Roof’s defenses were notoriously bend-don’t-break, but ultimately relied on turnovers to consistently create stops, and Nate Woody wasn’t able to make a significant change in his short tenure following Roof.

Geoff Collins and Andrew Thacker bring a defense that loves to use the words “chaos” and “mayhem,” and which seems determined to put pressure on the opposing offense. They’ve routinely stated they’ll be playing a heavy dose of press man coverage, and historically Collins’ defenses have featured a lot of blitzes and unique ways to get pressure. So, for better or worse, the defense will be transitioning from a passive approach to an aggressive one, which will be exciting in some form or fashion! (Note that “exciting” could mean lots of points being scored by Georgia Tech’s opponents at times.)

2) Offensive Line Development: This has been another long-term issue for Georgia Tech that will only be compounded by such a drastic scheme change this year. I’m hoping that some seemingly major offseason Strength & Conditioning gains will help to soften the blow here as it relates to the scheme change. The offensive line’s basic fundamentals are being transformed, and figure to be a work in progress all year. So – can they be more effective in October than September? Can they block Virginia Tech and NC State (in November) more effectively than UNC and Miami in October? Can they pass protect against Georgia more effectively than they do against Clemson? If so, it’ll build confidence in OL Coach Brent Key and OC Dave Patenaude. If not, we’ll be left wondering when (if ever) it will be fixed.

3) Offensive Skill Talent: Contrary to what most would probably believe, Georgia Tech has some decent talent at the skill positions on offense. There’s a deep, diverse room of running backs that will be used in lots of unique ways. There are some wide receivers that are capable of quite a bit more than they’ve been able to show in previous years. There’s even a tight end who transferred in from UConn that might end up being taken in next year’s NFL Draft. Lots of new faces will be seen, and old faces will show off their skills in new ways. There will inevitably be moments that cause discussions around “how Paul Johnson never used [Player X] in that way.”

STS: While a rebuilding year is expected, it’s not like Collins is taking over Louisville where they were a total disaster last year. Are there some team strengths or individual talents that may surprise outsiders expecting a “year zero” type project?

You’d probably have to start with the back seven on defense, which is far more talented than the numbers would’ve ever led you to believe over the past few years. The secondary is where Paul Johnson’s staffs seemed to do their best recruiting, with guys like Tre Swilling, Jaylon King, and Kaleb Oliver being some of their highest-rated recruits in their final classes, and Juanyeh Thomas coming back for his sophomore year after looking like a star in the making as a true freshman last year. This group is now going to be allowed to properly show off what they’re capable of with a more aggressive scheme. The linebackers also contain a lot of talent, athleticism, and experience, and should be leveraged in some different ways.

I’d also add that, as mentioned before, the offensive skill talent seems to be in fine shape for this shift in scheme. Georgia Tech’s combination of backs, receivers, and tight ends figure to be the least of their worries on offense.

STS: How long of a rebuilding project do you expect this to be? How long until the next bowl bid and how long until the next truly solid campaign (let’s define that as an eight-win regular season)?

I don’t expect this to be an extensive rebuild – and I haven’t really been thinking of it as a rebuild at all, to be honest. If we want to call it that though, missing a bowl game in 2019 would likely mean the next bowl game is in 2021. Missing a bowl in 2020 is more a function of an absolutely nasty schedule though, which will likely be up there with the most difficult in the country.

Overall, recruiting seems to be going fairly well and the team seems to have quickly bought in on what Geoff Collins’ staff is preaching, so my guess is that we’ll have a good indication of whether the Collins regime will be long-lived by the end of the 2021 season at the latest.

That said, making a bowl game in 2019 would be an exceptionally good sign for the future in my mind.

STS: Lastly, I’d like to get your thoughts on the season opening Thursday night game at Clemson. Normally in openers against teams like Furman, the opposition is so overmatched it is hard to take too much away aside from great or poor individual performances. This year we get a treat with an ACC game to start things off. At which matchups can GT provide some fight where Clemson fans should watch to really learn something about the 2019 Tigers?

Georgia Tech’s biggest advantage in this game will be the element of surprise, particularly on offense. Dave Patenaude isn’t approaching his offense in the way that Paul Johnson did – Johnson fit players to his scheme, Patenaude is fitting his scheme to the players. That means that having film on what Patenaude did at previous stops may only be somewhat helpful given that he now has a different mix of skill sets to work with. So the Yellow Jackets may be able to hit a few big plays at times by catching Clemson’s defense looking in places that they shouldn’t be.

Georgia Tech also has the ability to come in with the “playing with house money” mindset. They’re playing the defending National Champions, in their house, in their first game under a new coaching staff, wherein they’re underdogs by 35+ points. Most people would think there’s a better chance that the entire team goes on strike or retires from football altogether than winning the game. So…that’s like an advantage?

If you’re looking for specific personnel matchups where Georgia Tech may have an edge though, I’ve got nothing for you, and anyone who does have something for you is probably lying.

WAIT – that’s not true. The Yellow Jackets probably have an advantage on special teams. Clemson has to replace Greg Huegel, while Georgia Tech has former walk-on and perfect-in-college-so-far Wesley Wells. So, look out for a typically accurate field goal kicker.

Clemson wins this game going away. I could be bold (or a homer) and pick Georgia Tech to win cover, but…

Clemson 52, Georgia Tech 16