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Georgia Tech Football Spring Preview

Linebacker Anthony Williams is one of several Southern Crescent players hoping to break into the starting lineup this coming season at Georgia Tech. (Special Photo: Jason Mussell)

Linebacker Anthony Williams is one of several Southern Crescent players hoping to break into the starting lineup this coming season at Georgia Tech. (Special Photo: Jason Mussell)

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Georgia Tech rising junior D.J. White is hoping to solidify himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC. (Special Photo: Jason Mussell)

ATLANTA — College football is back on The Flats — at least for tonight.

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets play their spring game — traditionally known as Friday Night On The Flats — tonight at 7 p.m. at historic Bobby Dodd Stadium in downtown Atlanta, giving Tech fans an early look at the 2014 team.

After a 2013 season full of disappointing losses, light controversy and untimely transfers, coach Paul Johnson’s squad begins the reloading process with a glut of potential new contributors — including a handful of Southern Crescent hopefuls, and a new signal caller.

The Clayton News Daily takes an early look at the Jackets in its spring game preview.

Last Season:

Georgia Tech finished the 2013 season with a 7-6 overall record and a 5-3 mark in the ACC’s Coastal Division. The Yellow Jackets ended coach Paul Johnson’s sixth season with back-to-back heartbreaking losses — a 41-34 double overtime defeat at the hands of bitter rival Georgia, and a 25-17 loss to Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn.

Who’s Back:

We’ll start with the defense, which could be the Jackets’ strength this season, particularly the secondary. Although standout defensive back Jemea Thomas is gone, Tech should enjoy the return of two talented players from injuries in Jamal Golden and Isaiah Johnson. But former Union Grove player D.J. White looks poised to have a special year. White finished the season with a breakout performance in the Music City Bowl against Ole Miss, registering 12 tackles, including 10 solo stops. He also recorded three pass breakups and snagged an interception the Jackets’ loss. The defensive backs are fast, athletic and have good closing speed. Quayshawn Nealy is an all-conference caliber player at linebacker.

Offensively speaking, there are tons of new faces which produce a smorgasbord of questions. At the top of the list questions is, who will replace Vad Lee? Secondary to that, will the much maligned departure of the quarterback, who came to the program touted as the big difference maker coach Johnson needed, cast an unshakable shadow over this program? Enter rising sophomore Justin Thomas to try to provide answers. Thomas is promising, if inexperienced. Playing as a freshman behind Lee last year, he threw just 17 passes, completing nine for 131 yards, a touchdown and two picks. But he had, perhaps his most extensive action in a 56-0 win against Syracuse. There he rushed for 95 yards on 10 carries in Tech’s triple option offense. The 5-foot-11 native of Prattvile, Ala. is a true option specialist, and should have a good offensive line in front of him to make things easier, anchored by preseason All-America candidate Shaq Mason at guard.

Who’s New:

Robert Godhigh and David Sims graduated last year and took 3,099 combined rushing and receiving yards with them. That leaves Deon Hill and Zach Laskey as the ones most likely to fill what Tech calls the “A-back,” and “B-back” positions. Laskey is the leading returning rusher with 485 yards. But look out for the possible emergence of freshman running back Travis Custis. The former Lovejoy High star is a 2013 signee who should challenge for playing time immediately this year. Also look for true freshmen Tre Jackson (defensive end) and three-star recruit out of Jacksonville, Fla., Step Durham may be the players most ready to make an immediate impact.

What to Watch: Several things: Watch how White and the defense emerge under second year coordinator Ted Roof. White said the defense has looked comfortable, fast and fluid during spring. He was also complimentary of the receiving corps, led by Darren Waller. Johnson’s is an offense that is run-based, but a triple option attack always seems to work better when there’s at least one guy on the edge who can stretch the field on option play-action. It’ll be interesting to see who those guys are. Of local note, how much Spring Game clock will Southern Crescent products Custis, linebacker Anthony Williams (Union Grove) and safety Tyler Teknipp (Eagle’s Landing) get? Of course, all eyes will be on quarterback Justin Thomas.

What to Expect: An athletic team. A potentially fun squad to watch. And a team that should, at the least, match its 2013 conference win total. With Duke, Clemson and Miami all at home, and each with big question marks at quarterback, the Jackets could be set up for a surprise season with a few breaks, and a settled in Justin Thomas under center.