The Yellow Jackets were 7-6 last season, and at times Johnson’s option offense was difficult to recognize. The Yellow Jackets struggled after installing shotgun and pistol formations and new plays to tap into quarterback Vad Lee’s skills.
Lee has transferred to James Madison, and after two-plus hours in helmets but no other pads Thursday, the first day of preseason practice, senior fullback Zack Laskey said he felt at home again.
The Yellow Jackets will return to what they did before while finishing in the top five in the nation in rushing in each of Johnson’s first five seasons.
“I think we’re going to just go back to basics, smash-mouth football,” said Laskey, who figures to carry and catch the ball more this season than all other players based on the history of the lone setback in Johnson’s offense.
“I think we have the guys to do the things we have to do and as far as I can tell, there’s going to be a lot more option offense.”
After his team’s first practice, Johnson was typically simple in most answers.
There were signs in spring scrimmages Tech would simplify and perhaps use a no-huddle approach, but Johnson said Thursday was not much different than the first day of fall practice in any of his first six years as a head coach.
“There’s not a lot of different things you can do,” he said. “You always go back to the basics, to scratch, because you don’t want to lose (freshmen).”
Sophomore Justin Thomas is listed as the No. 1 quarterback, but the 5-foot-10 speedster originally committed to attend Alabama as a defensive back, will have to fight off a challenge from Tim Byerly, a transfer from Middle Tennessee State.
The speedy Thomas rushed for 234 yards on 33 carries for a 7.1-yard average and completed 9-of-17 passes for 131 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions last season.
“With camp starting, you’ve got to get more in the mindset mentally instead of physically,” he said. “You’ve got to come in like you’re going to be first string no matter what.”
Georgia Tech has to replace seven starters on defense, but graduated safety Isaiah Johnson, who missed last season after a knee surgery, and junior safety Jamal Golden, a return ace who was lost for the 2013 season after a shoulder injury in the third game, are healthy again.
A replacement for defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, who left as the all-time school leader in career sacks (31½) and was drafted in the second round by the NFL’s Chargers, will be hard to find.
The Georgia Tech staff figured that starting linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days could move into that role, making the transition Attaochu made a year earlier. But Hunt-Days, the former Hillgrove High School standout, became academically ineligible in the spring and this season will work on the scout team as a non-scholarship player.
Johnson said Thursday potential starting defensive end Kenderius Whitehead, who was expected to graduate this summer from Georgia Military College, is on campus but has not yet graduated from the junior college.
It remains unclear whether Whitehead — who missed Thursday with what Johnson described as headache issues — may achieve graduation and be eligible to play this season.
“Right now, he’s a transfer student like everybody else,” Johnson said in referencing the NCAA rule that states that most players who transfer to a Division I school have to sit out a season before playing.