ATLANTA (AP) — After Georgia Tech's first "fall" practice on Thursday, head coach Paul Johnson said two things with certainty: He saw a lot of familiar faces, and the Yellow Jackets appear to be in good shape. Beyond that, questions abound.
Tech returns 18 seniors. That's the most Johnson's had since inheriting 18 in his first year (2008). With 15 starters back — eight on defense and seven on offense — from a team that beat USC 21-7 in the Sun Bowl, the goal is to finish better than 7-7.
"It's always good to have a large senior class," Johnson said. "It means you've got some guys who've played a lot of football, which is a good thing. It's always good to get back out there. Guys came back in really good condition . . . our best in a while."
Now comes the hard part: improving not just on last year, but the past three.
Tech rallied somewhat in 2012 from a 2-4 start and a three-game losing streak that prompted the mid-season firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh. But after going 9-4 and 11-3 in Johnson's first seasons and then a combined 21-19 over the past three, the Yellow Jackets have cause to be more defensive.
This goes beyond the hiring of former Tech linebacker and defensive coordinator Ted Roof (1999-2001), who returned from Penn State to his alma mater.
The Yellow Jackets were in the ACC championship game last season, losing 21-15 to Florida State. Coastal Division rivals North Carolina and Miami were ineligible because of NCAA sanctions and withdrew because of pending NCAA penalties, respectively, so Tech got the nod.
"As a team, we have more to prove than last year," said senior fullback David Sims. "We ended up winning our bowl game for the first time in a long time (after a seven-year drought), but the main thing is we want to build off that. We want to prove that going to the ACC championship game wasn't a fluke."
The Yellow Jackets will do that with a new quarterback.
Tevin Washington graduated, and redshirt sophomore Vad Lee, who rushed for 544 yards and nine touchdowns and passed for 596 yards and four scores, is the top candidate to replace him. Redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Thomas was dazzling as a runner at times in spring practice.