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Yellow Jackets returning to option ways

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets linebacker Quayshawn Nealy addresses the media during the ACC football media day at the Grandover Resort. (USA TODAY Sports: Sam Sharpe)

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets linebacker Quayshawn Nealy addresses the media during the ACC football media day at the Grandover Resort. (USA TODAY Sports: Sam Sharpe)

Coach Paul Johnson has a good feeling about this year’s Georgia Tech football team.

Johnson, who is beginning his seventh season at Tech, said this year’s team seems to be closer, more willing to concentrate on the team aspect rather than individual accomplishments. He said this group, which includes 11 starters and 43 returning lettermen, has bought into the Tech concept.

But how will that translate to wins and losses? Johnson wouldn’t take that bait.

“It’s hard to evaluate your team before you play,” Johnson said. “Is this our most talented team? Probably not. Will it be our best team? We’ll have to see.”

Georgia Tech is coming off a less-than-satisfying 7-6 season that saw the Yellow Jackets lose to Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl. They were picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division by the media in the recent ACC Kickoff meetings in Greensboro, N.C., a prediction that means little to Johnson.

Johnson pointed out that Tech’s average pick at the meetings over his six years has been 3.9, but their average finish has been 1.8. During Johnson’s tenure, Tech has won or shared the division championship four times and never finished lower than third.

Tech will try to change its tone this year by returning to its roots as an option team. The Yellow Jackets got away from the option portion of their attack last year because quarterback Vad Lee never grasped the ability to run the play. Lee transferred after the season after running for 513 yards and throwing for 1,561.

Lee’s departure leaves sophomore Justin Thomas as the No. 1 quarterback and Tim Byerly at No. 2. Both are comfortable running the offense, with Thomas getting the edge for quickness and ability to hit the seam, and Byerly noted for his toughness inside.

Tech’s schedule is more conducive to success this year. The Jackets open with three non-conference games before jumping into ACC play. The Yellow Jackets are expected to be among the contenders in the Coastal Division.

Georgia Tech gets to ease into its schedule by opening with three non-ACC games. Tech doesn’t start conference play until the fourth game against Virginia Tech, which has four straight wins over the Yellow Jackets. Playing Wofford, Tulane and Georgia Southern should give the young offensive line time to grow together and allow first-year quarterback Justin Thomas to get his feet wet for the difficult conference schedule.

The defense must continue to improve. A big step was made last year under first-year coordinator Ted Roof, a former All-ACC player at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets simplified the defense that had run askew under Al Groh’s complicated system in 2012. Tech had some strong defensive games (Virginia Tech, Pitt, Virginia, Syracuse) but disappeared at big moments, the most telling when it lost a 20-point lead to Georgia in the season finale.

The offensive line has only one returning starter; All-ACC guard Shaq Mason. While the line is short on experience, it is heavy with depth. Coach Paul Johnson said this may be the deepest offensive line fielded in his six seasons, going three deep at most spots.

“We’ve got to be better at what we do,” Johnson said. “Last year we weren’t very good at running the triple option. I want to get back to where we’re better at that, so things come off that. That’s the way this offense is built.”