ATLANTA — 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.
The defense lost only starting linemen Izaan Cross and T.J. Barnes and cornerback Rod Sweeting. There is depth aplenty in the secondary, and the linebacking corps appears solid although the Yellow Jackets are transitioning from Groh's 3-4 to a 4-3.
That move has converted Tech's top defender, Jeremiah Attaochu, from outside linebacker to defensive end.
One of the many senior Yellow Jackets, safety Isaiah Johnson, was limited in practice Thursday after undergoing offseason knee surgery. He anticipates participating before the season begins, and his presence means plenty. His 211 combined tackles and assists are second-most among ACC players.
He knows Tech's fortunes figure to be linked closely with defensive improvement.
Johnson's offenses, after all, have finished in the top five in the nation in rushing and scoring in all five of his previous seasons.
"With this type of offense, they're going to move the ball," said the senior safety. "I agree; the defense will have to step it up."
Johnson was not the only senior starter on the sideline Thursday. Center Jay Finch, who had offseason shoulder surgery, was limited, and running back Robbie Godhigh has a broken hand, although he's expected back shortly.
Tech opens at home against Elon on Aug. 21, and then plays four consecutive ACC games: at Duke, against North Carolina and Virginia Tech, and at Miami.
Giving the quick moved into conference action, injuries already bear watching.
The two leading candidates to back up Finch — or replace him — are out of the picture. Redshirt freshman Freddie Burden suffered a season-ending injury in the spring, and junior Catlin Alford told Paul Johnson the day before the first practice that he had decided to leave school.
"We're missing a couple guys right off the bat on the offensive line so that's not good," the coach said. "Morgan Bailey is out; he's probably going to be out six weeks."