Press Conference: Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, we’re actually very excited about the quarterback position at Georgia Tech. I think that Justin Thomas brings a great skill set to what we want to do offensively. He’s a guy with great quickness who was the 100 meter dash champ in the state of Alabama at Prattville High School when he played quarterback there his senior year, won a state championship, and he probably has the quickest release of any quarterback that we’ve had at Georgia Tech as far as throwing the ball. He’s not a big guy, but I think he’s very talented. Tim Byerly is a young man who transferred in, walked on, and he’s earned a scholarship but had a great spring practice that really reminds me a little bit of Josh Nesbitt when Josh played the first couple years when I was at Georgia Tech, 220 pounds, hard to tackle, extremely tough guy but might be a little better passer. We feel good about that position. I think both those guys embrace what we do. They’re looking forward to it, and it’s been fun watching them in the spring.
Q. You just talked about the offensive side. Defensively who’s really stepped up through the spring and has established some of that leadership that you’re going to be looking forward to in the fall?
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, Quayshawn Nealy made a lot of big plays. We have two safeties that are coming back, both our starting safeties from a year ago actually missed the season, Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden. Isaiah will be a fifth year senior, Jamal will be in his fourth year but will have played a lot. Jamal is also a great return guy. So that gives us some stability back on the back end in the secondary along with DJ White who’s a returning starter. Adam Gotsis returns as a starter up front on the D-line. We’re expecting great things from him. And a young freshman who came to school in January named KeShun Freeman I think could be a surprise guy. I think he’s got a great motor. He could very easily end up being the Jeremiah Attachou that we lost from a year ago. Going to have some young guys, but I think they’re talented, and we’re excited to see what they can do.
Q. Is reloading that defensive line maybe the biggest issue you have on defense?
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, I think that’s probably where we had the biggest loss. You know, there’s six guys off last year’s defense that are currently in NFL camps, and three of the four guys up front are in camps. They played a great deal. We feel like we have some young guys that can replace them, but until they do it on the field and in the games, you never really know. I think that that would be fair to say that’s a question mark going into the fall. Probably our defense as a whole is a question mark.
Q. Along the lines of your defense, can you talk about the impact Ted Roof has had and just how you and he are syncing up having had a little time under your belt together?
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, I think Ted came in last year and did a really good job bringing in a system that was a little simpler than what our guys had been accustomed to. They were able to play a little faster, a little harder. You know, we weren’t — at times last year, defensively, when we were good, we were real good, and when we were bad, we were real bad. So what you want to do is find that consistency. I think against some teams with really good skill players, we struggled last year. We gave up some big leads in a couple of games, Miami and Georgia come to mind, and we’ve got to be a little more consistent over there. But excited about what Ted brings. He brings a lot of fire and intensity. He’s a former all-conference linebacker at Georgia Tech. He has a good idea of what our guys go through every day.
Q. It would be my guess that everybody, at some point in time during August camp, steals a couple of days to prepare for what you all do offensively. I’m just interested, is there anybody that you maybe steal from in August camp to try to get prepared for?
PAUL JOHNSON: Not really. You know, I think that in college football today, we’re a little unique that we’re still under the center with the option game and that kind of thing, but there’s probably a team in college football or very few — you could probably count on one hand, the teams that don’t incorporate some type of option, whether it be with a zone scheme or some type of deal. So there’s a lot of carryover when you play other teams. I think the big thing, defense has gone in the last few years, or really it’s been longer than that, but into a personnel game. You’re trying to match up with different sets with 10 personnel, with 11 personnel, so we’ve changed our defense a little bit this year. We’re going to base — our nickel is actually going to be our base defense. We found that we played about 75 percent of the snaps a year ago in nickel. And playing against ourselves a little bit in fall camp, I think gives us a pretty good base for a lot of the one back and some of the zone reads and some of that stuff, and there is nobody in particular that we separate out to try to get ready for over anybody else.
Q. You lose three key guys on the offensive line this year, and the two guys that you have coming back each have only eight starts in their career. What do you need to do to build on the offensive line? Who’s filling those holes?
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, we’ve got — I think we return our best offensive lineman in Shaq Mason, who’s been our best player up there for a couple years. Certainly we start there. I believe Trey Braun started eight or nine games at the other offensive guard last year. Brian Chamberlain started several games a year ago. A young man named Freddie Burden would have had a real chance to be a center a year ago and got hurt and missed the season. So he’s back healthy. If he can stay healthy, we’re excited about him. Going into fall camp right now, Chris Griffin would be a red-shirt freshman that would be the other tackle, who’s a highly recruited guy who’s had a full year in the system now. So we feel like that while we’re younger up there, we’re probably as athletic as we’ve ever been and maybe more so than we have been in the past. Lots of areas of concern, like always. But I feel like we’ll be okay up there.
Q. In the Atlantic Coast Conference the ACC has very few returning quarterbacks but maybe more returning offensive linemen per school than I can remember. Every school has at least three starters coming back. What kind of an indicator is that of the offense in the Atlantic Coast Conference to have that many veteran offensive linemen?
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, I think depending on what you do as an offensive scheme, certainly it’s a comfort level for the coach and what he can do. Clearly, you would hope that they have a great understanding of your protections, your different blocking schemes — and you know, for a team that’s breaking in a new quarterback, it’s always a real comfort to look up there and see some grizzled veterans up there in front of me that have kind of been there and done that, and they can be a calming influence on the guys behind them.
Q. You mentioned personnel. Talk to me a little bit about Vic Beasley, the defensive end returning at Clemson and how you go about game language for him.
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, clearly Vic is a tremendous athlete and got great quickness coming off the edge. I think that what we try to do with him is hopefully within our offensive system, we try to make him a read guy where we don’t block him. Hopefully, if he’s too active, he can run himself out of some things. But you’ve got to be aware of him when you get in passing situations, in passing downs, because he’s so explosive coming off the edge and such a good player that it’s hard to ask one guy to block him. You need to have some guys that can chip on him and some other guys that can help out. The problem is they have a lot of good players, so it’s borrowing from Peter to pay Paul sometimes. Clearly, he’s a guy that everybody knows where he’s lined up, including the quarterback, I imagine.
Q. Statistically speaking, 3,100 yards given up in the air last year. You obviously have the two corners coming back to provide stability. As you look at the vertical column of numbers, where would you like to improve your stats? You’re pretty strong in a lot of different areas.
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, you know, everybody can probably say the same thing, but we were really probably two or three plays away from winning 10 or 11 games a year ago. What we have to do is be more consistent. I think we’ve got to be better in the takeaway, giveaway, turnover margin area. We need to get more than we got and cut back on the turnovers. And the key for us is just going to be to be better defensively more consistently, I think. If you look at the losses last year, Virginia Tech, we really struggled offensively in that game, but other than that, the games that we lost, we really struggled defensively to try to get stops at key times.
Q. The switch to the 4-2-5 defense, how much of that has to do with all those people that you talked about that you lost?
PAUL JOHNSON: Well, literally we played over 70 percent of our snaps in that defense a year ago. It was our nickel defense, and when we did our breakdowns and we looked, and we knew it during the season. But by personnel match-ups, we were in that more than anything else, so for lack of a better term, we just said, okay, that’s our base defense. It’s not really a change. It’s something that we did last year.
Q. I know it’s one game at a time, but do you ever look at the schedule preseason for the flow of the schedule, home games, road games, the way the particular setup games may shake out?
PAUL JOHNSON: You know, the biggest thing I look at are the non-conference games and the conference games. For the past couple years. We’ve had a brutal conference schedule. We played most of our division games in the first six weeks of the season, so you either got way ahead or you put yourself way behind the 8-ball. I like our schedule this year. Three of our four non-conference games are up front for the first time in a while, and we’ve got a little space between the division games. I mean, last year we went Duke, North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech, all in a row, all division games. So they’re spaced out a little better this time, and I like our schedule. I think it’s as good as it’s been in a while.