The 2018 Virginia football opponent preview series continues with Georgia Tech, which is led at quarterback by one of the ACC’s most explosive athletes. The Cavaliers face the Yellow Jackets on Nov. 17 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. Georgia Tech went 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the ACC last season.
» Lawrence Austin, CB (graduation): Playing in the nickel position, Austin was second on the team last fall with 56 tackles and four pass breakups. After graduating, he and his twin brother, cornerback Lance Austin, both received invites to the Atlanta Falcons’ rookie minicamp.
» A.J. Gray, S (medical issue): Gray started 10 games at free safety last fall and finished third on the team with 54 tackles. He recorded one sack and led the team with two interceptions. After the season, the rising senior was forced to retire because of a heart condition.
» Is TaQuon Marshall a dark horse Heisman candidate?
Originally recruited as a running back in Georgia Tech’s triple option scheme, Marshall began his career as a starting quarterback last fall with 249 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a season-opening loss to Tennessee. He went on to post five more 100-yard rushing games, including 163 against Wake Forest and 143 at Virginia. Marshall finished his junior season with 1,146 rushing yards, 927 passing yards and 27 touchdowns (17 rushing, 10 passing).
» Can the Yellow Jackets get past their Virginia Tech hangover?
After losing in double overtime in the season opener against Tennessee, falling, 25-24, to Miami and blowing a lead in the last three minutes of a loss at Virginia, Georgia Tech finally broke through in 2017 with a fourth-down stand in a 28-22 upset of Virginia Tech. The Yellow Jackets proceeded to end the season with lopsided losses to Duke (43-20) and Georgia (38-7).
» Strength: Veteran offensive line
Georgia Tech returns three of five starters on an offensive line that paved the way last season for two 1,000-yard rushers, led the ACC and ranked No. 5 nationally with 307.4 rushing yards a game. Center Kenny Cooper, a member of the spring Rimington Trophy watch list, leads the unit after starting all 11 games. Left tackle Jahaziel Lee (6-2, 277), left guard Parker Braun (6-3, 280) and right guard Will Bryan (6-4, 281) are all back. Jake Strickler was expected back after starting 10 games at right tackle, but he was forced to retire due to a medical issue. KirVonte Benson (1,053 yards in 2017), Nathan Cottrell, Qua Searcy and Clinton Lynch will share carries again this season.
» Weakness: One-dimensional attack
While they had the ACC’s top rushing attack in 2017, the Yellow Jackets also fielded its worst passing game, averaging just 84.3 yards a game. That’s no surprise to anyone familiar with the triple option, but such a one-dimensional offense makes it difficult to climb back into one-sided games. Senior wide receiver Brad Stewart (6-1, 197) will be the man trying to stretch defenses out, though he only caught four passes for 99 yards a year ago. Junior Jalen Camp (6-2, 213) may also see a few more passes after impressing the coaches this spring.
» Strength: Strong up the middle
Seniors Victor Alexander and Brant Mitchell lead a talented group of linebackers. Mitchell was fourth on the team last season with 51 tackles. Alexander is back after leading all tacklers last fall with 60. David Curry has been slowed by injuries but will play a large role, and Bruce Jordan-Swiling put up 34 tackles and an interception last season as a freshman.
» Weakness: Rebuilding the secondary
Georgia Tech opens 2018 without a single starting defensive back that appeared on last fall’s season-opening depth chart or recorded an interception. Safety Corey Griffin, the Austin brothers and cornerback Step Durham all graduated and earned invites to NFL minicamps. Gray (free safety) was forced to retire for medical issues. Redshirt senior Jalen Johnson and redshirt junior Christian Campbell are competing for time at safety. Lamont Simmons looks like the favorite at cornerback.
Marshall is sure to put up plenty of highlight-reel plays and the backfield will be productive again. Everything else is up in the air. The defense showed improvement last fall and returns some experience in the front seven, but with a completely rebuilt secondary, unseating Miami and Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division will be a monumental task. And with Duke’s and Pittsburgh’s defenses poised to surprise some teams, Georgia Tech may finally have to figure out a passing game.