Georgia Tech ended last season with quite a flourish.
For the Yellow Jackets to build on that momentum, they’ll need to find another quarterback.
It won’t be easy to replace the one they lost.
Justin Thomas wrapped up his marvelous career after three years as the starter, leaving a huge hole in coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense. Georgia Tech opened spring practice Monday knowing it will be vitally important to at least get a good start on finding Thomas’ successor, even if a final decision isn’t made until the fall.
The most likely replacement is fourth-year junior Matthew Jordan, who was Thomas’ backup the past two seasons. He’ll be challenged for the starting job by redshirt freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones, along with junior TaQuan Marshall, who started his career as a running back but moved to quarterback last season.
Paul Johnson doesn’t sound concerned.
“I’m not as worried about the quarterback spot as I am some of the other spots, to be honest with you,” the coach said. “We’ve got a lot of potential at quarterback. We’ve got a lot of guys. We’ll be fine there.”
Jordan certainly has the ability to handle the running duties in Tech’s offense, which he displayed with 121 yards and two touchdowns in an upset at Virginia Tech when Thomas was sidelined by an injury. But Jordan is not nearly as far along as a passer, which will be a major focus this spring.
He has thrown just 18 passes in his college career, completing eight for 205 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Experience gives him a big edge over the other contenders.
“Matthew knows the system. He’s been consistent. He’s played in games. He’s started on the road. He’s older,” Johnson said. “So he’s way ahead of all those other guys in that aspect.”
While the Yellow Jackets are a team that relies primarily on the ground game, they need to establish at least a semblance of a passing attack to keep defenses off balance and take advantage of big-play opportunities.
Thomas was especially gifted at that, becoming the first player in Georgia Tech history to run for 2,000 yards and pass for 4,000 yards. Even though he didn’t have a stellar completion rate, he hit enough deep balls to make the triple-option effective.
While Johnson downplayed the quarterback battle, it’s clear that everyone else is eager to see how it plays out.
“It’s going to be a really great competition,” defensive end KeShun Freeman said. “That’s what makes this spring very exciting.”
Quarterback isn’t the only position that will draw attention:
—Dedrick Mills is looking to build off a strong freshman season that ended with a 169-yard performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Johnson will be looking for signs of maturity off the field, too, after the talented B-back missed two games because of suspensions.
—Georgia Tech must replace kicker Harrison Butker, who missed only two field goals and was perfect on extra points, as well as punter Ryan Rodwell.
—The defensive line has a big hole to fill. Departed tackle Patrick Gamble had 7 1/2 sacks and 10 1/2 tackles behind the line.
Bouncing back from a dismal 3-9 performance in 2015, Georgia Tech won its final four games last season to finish at 9-4, including an upset of rival Georgia and a bowl victory over Kentucky.
The Yellow Jackets will open this season against yet another Southeastern Conference school, facing Tennessee in the second of two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games that will be held in the city’s new retractable-roof showpiece, $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Defensive back Corey Griffin noted that the national championship game will be played in the same stadium.
“Start in the dome, finish in the dome’ is our motto this year,” he said. “I came up with it this morning. I was just thinking about it. The national championship is here in Atlanta this year, in our hometown, in our backyard.”