ATLANTA – Paul Johnson's first two years at Georgia Tech are looking better and better — and increasingly distant in the past.
Since winning a combined 20 games in 2008 and 2009, Georgia Tech has averaged seven wins the last four years. The Yellow Jackets, looking for their first Top 25 finish since 2009, are trying to end an ugly streak of five straight losses to state rival Georgia.
Johnson points to recent high finishes in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division as evidence criticism of his program is unwarranted. Georgia Tech has never finished lower than third in the division in Johnson's six years.
The league's media picked Georgia Tech to finish only fifth in the division this year.
The Yellow Jackets finished 7-6 overall and 5-3 in the ACC last year. Georgia Tech lost three of its last four games, including a Music City Bowl loss to Mississippi.
Justin Thomas is expected to replace quarterback Vad Lee, who transferred to James Madison. The running game should be strong as usual in Johnson's spread-option attack.
There are questions on both lines.
"We've got replace a lot of experience on the offensive line," Johnson said. "So there are question marks. I can see why people would question (the team's potential).
"Are we going to be the most talented team that we've had here individually? Probably not. But that doesn't mean you're not going to be the best team. You just have to see."
Here are five things to watch for when the Yellow Jackets open the season Aug. 30:
A STRONG START: Georgia Tech opens with nonconference games against Wofford, at Tulane and against Georgia Southern. There is potential to establish momentum before an ACC opener at Virginia Tech, but the visit from Georgia Southern could be interesting. Georgia Southern, moving up to Division I-A, upset Florida last season. Johnson won two I-AA national championships while coaching at Georgia Southern from 1997-2001 as well as two more as an assistant in the 1980s. This will be the first meeting between the state rivals.
NEW NAMES ON D-LINE: Junior tackle Adam Gotsis, a native of Australia, is the lone returning starter. Gotsis had 14.4 tackles for losses, including 5.5 sacks, as a sophomore in 2013. Among the players who must be replaced are ends Jeremiah Attaochu, a second-round pick by the Chargers, and Emmanuel Dieke, who was invited to the Giants' camp. Tackle Euclid Cummings moved on as well. Defensive end Kenderius Whitehead, a transfer from Georgia Military (Junior) College, must sit out the season. Whitehead began his career at N.C. State. Defensive end Jabari Hunt-Days, a converted linebacker, was declared ineligible for the season.
THOMAS TAKES OVER: Johnson experimented with the shotgun, including a diamond formation, with Lee last year. He said it will be back to basics with Thomas under center. Johnson said he is determined his offense again will be efficient in the triple-option plays which make Georgia Tech one of the nation's top rushing teams. Thomas (5-11, 185) is small but could pile up big gains with his speed. Tim Byerly, a more physical runner, is the top backup.
DEPTH AT RUNNING BACK: Senior Zach Laskey looks to be the leader of a deep corps of running backs. Laskey, who lines up behind Thomas in the B-back position, said he worked on trimming fat and adding muscle after running for 485 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He has almost 1,200 career yards rushing. Synjyn Days, a converted quarterback, moved into a starting role in the middle of his 2013 junior season. He can play as a B-back or one of the two A-backs who line up outside. Johnson must replace Robert Godhigh and David Sims, the team's leading rushers last season.
CONTINUITY ON DEFENSE: The defense should benefit from a second year with coordinator Ted Roof, who last year brought back a 4-3 look. Georgia Tech shut out Elon and Syracuse last year but gave up more than 30 points in losses to Miami, BYU, Clemson and Georgia.
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