ATLANTA — Paul Johnson says a strong start would make it much easier for Georgia Tech to earn a repeat trip to the ACC championship game.
The Yellow Jackets won only one of their first four Atlantic Coast Conference games last season. They recovered to finish 5-3 in the league before losing to Florida State in the ACC championship game in Charlotte. A Sun Bowl win over Southern California capped the 7-7 season.
Georgia Tech opens with Elon and then plays four straight ACC games against Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami. By Oct. 5, Johnson will know much more about his team's chances for a return to Charlotte.
"We can set ourselves up to be in good shape early on or we can dig ourselves a hole like what happened last year," Johnson said. "The start of the season is really important."
The Yellow Jackets are switching to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Ted Roof. Quarterback Vad Lee, who saw significant time in 2012 behind Tevin Washington, is expected to start but could share time with redshirt freshman Justin Thomas.
Lee could develop into a more dangerous passer than Washington, who ran for 20 touchdowns last season in the spread-option offense.
The team has little experience at wide receiver, but Johnson's offense always emphasizes the run. Georgia Tech finished fourth in the nation in rushing last season but had no player with more than 18 catches.
Running backs Zach Laskey, David Sims and Robert Godhigh return. Each ran for more than 400 yards last season.
The surprise of the preseason has been DeAndre Smelter, who has played baseball at Georgia Tech for three years and decided to give football a try. He may start at wide receiver, a development that says much about the void on the depth chart at the position.
Here are five things to watch as keys to Georgia Tech's season:
1. Can Roof make an immediate impact?
Roof, the former Duke coach who played linebacker at Georgia Tech in the 1980s under Bill Curry, returns to his alma mater after one season as Penn State's defensive coordinator. Georgia Tech was giving up 30.2 points per game when Al Groh was fired as coordinator midway through last season. The team's switch from Groh's 3-4 to a 4-3 began in the second half of the season. Outside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said Roof "has simplified the defense tremendously" in preseason drills. The strength of the unit could be senior defensive ends Jeremiah Attaochu and Emmanuel Dieke.
2. It's Vad's time
Fans have eagerly awaited Lee's chance to take over the quarterback job. He completed only 48 percent of his passes last year as a freshman but showed good arm strength as well as the ability to make big plays when he keeps the ball on the option. A key will be Lee's ability to make the right reads and avoid turnovers with his pitches, passes and runs. Johnson continues to say Thomas (5-11, 179) remains in the chase for playing time or even the starting job. Thomas is small but is a dangerous threat as a runner.
3. Who can catch the ball?
Darren Waller, who had eight catches in 2012, is the team's only healthy wide receiver with a reception at the college level. There was hope Anthony Autry could emerge but he re-injured his knee and is out for the season. Jeremy Moore, who had 10 catches last season, left the program. Jeff Greene, who shared the team lead with 18 catches, also left the team. Smelter (6-3, 220) has taken advantage of the opening to impress the coaches this summer.
4. B-back watch
The B-back in the spread option is the running back who lines up behind the quarterback. That's the spot that produced 1,300-yard rushers Jonathan Dwyer and Anthony Allen early in Johnson's era. There hasn't been one dominant rusher in recent seasons as Godhigh and other A-backs — who line up spread out — have shared the carries. Broderick Snoddy, a sprinter on Georgia Tech's track team, could add big-play potential to the position.
5. Get healthy up front
Jay Finch, the projected starting center, was held out of Saturday's scrimmage with an injury. Ray Beno, normally a tackle, was working as the No. 1 center before he also was held out with an elbow injury. Freddie Burden, who might have been next in line, is out for the season. Another candidate, Catlin Alford, quit football before preseason practice. Auburn transfer Thomas O'Reilly was with the first-team offense at center in the scrimmage, but the Yellow Jackets need Beno and Finch healthy for the ACC opener at Duke on Sept. 14.
Predicted finish in ACC Coastal Division: Fourth.