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Thursday October 19th, 2017 4:04PM

Georgia Tech, returning starters aim to build on last season

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA — Georgia Tech is back on track.

The Yellow Jackets rebounded emphatically from the worst season of coach Paul Johnson's tenure in Atlanta, winning nine games a year ago to re-establish a bit of swagger.

Johnson sees similarities to his 2014 team, which won the Orange Bowl and finished in the Top 10.

"We've got a new quarterback, a couple of new guys, but the majority of them have played," Johnson said. "We would love to have the same result we had in '14. That would be great."

Closing out last season with an upset of rival Georgia and a bowl victory over Kentucky provided plenty of momentum heading into 2017, which will mark Johnson's 10th year at Georgia Tech.

"In this profession," he said with a smile, "that's a long time."

Johnson, in fact, has been in his current job longer than any other coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But he was on a shaky ground after stumbling to a 3-9 mark in 2015, a miserable season that he blamed largely on a rash of injuries and not any fundamental defects in the program.

Still, he needed to show he could turn things around, especially with Todd Stansbury coming in as the new athletic director. He did, guiding the Yellow Jackets to six wins in their final seven games, including an impressive upset at Virginia Tech.

Now, the most pressing issue is settling on a quarterback to replace three-year starter Justin Thomas. His backup, Matthew Jordan, is the leading candidate to land the job running the triple-option offense, though he's got plenty of challengers.

So many that no one seems too concerned about filling Thomas' shoes.

"I'm confident in all those guys," cornerback Lance Austin said. "All of them bring something to table. When they reveal who's going to be the starter, I'm pretty sure we're going to be good with whoever ends up at that position."

It also helps to have B-back Dedrick Mills, who is coming off a stellar freshman season capped by a 31-carry, 169-yard performance that earned MVP honors in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Here are some other things to keep an eye on for the Yellow Jackets this season:

SEASON OPENER: Georgia Tech faces a huge test right out of the blocks, taking on Tennessee in a prime-time, Labor Day contest at new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta. It will be only the second college football game played in the $1.6 billion facility, coming two nights after the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between Alabama and Florida Stadium. After closing last season with a pair of victories over Southeastern Conference teams, the Yellow Jackets are eager to give the ACC another reason to brag against its powerhouse neighbor.

OTHER KEY GAMES: Sept. 23 vs. Pittsburgh, Oct. 12 at Miami, Oct. 28 at Clemson, Nov. 25 vs. Georgia.

ALL EYES ON THE QUARTERBACK: Jordan earned huge props for leading the 20-10 victory at Virginia Tech in his first college start, filling in for the injured Thomas. A foot injury cost Jordan the final two weeks of spring practice, giving the other contenders a chance to show what they could do. TaQuon Marshall played A-back last season and could go back to that position if he's not going to get significant time at quarterback. A pair of redshirt freshmen is also in the mix. Jay Jones might be the best runner of the bunch, while Lucas Johnson appears to have the strongest arm.

JUST FOR KICKS: The Yellow Jackets will have to break in a new kicker after Harrison Butker handled the job so ably the last four years. With Butker now trying to win a job in the NFL (he was a seventh-round pick of the Carolina Panthers), freshman Brenton King is the replacement. Another freshman, Presley Harvin, will get a shot at taking over for punter Ryan Rodwell, a three-year starter. It may take a few games into the season, or even longer, to fully settle these positions.

PREDICTION: Georgia Tech has a shot at reaching the ACC championship game for the fourth time in Johnson's decade-long tenure, largely because it plays in the much weaker Coastal Division. While title contenders Clemson, Florida State and Louisville battle it out in the Atlantic Division, the Yellow Jackets will have to get past teams such as Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt and North Carolina. Don't count out Johnson, who never seems to have as much talent as the other guys but knows how to get the most out of his players.

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