|Guard Omoregie Uzzi :: Getty Images|
There's no debate as to what makes Georgia Tech go these days. Over four seasons, Paul Johnson's triple-option offense has averaged 301.7 yards per game, and the Yellow Jackets have never ranked lower than fourth in the nation in rushing. That success breeds confidence -- a feeling that remains unshaken even though Georgia Tech lacks any receivers with even one career reception.
"I think we're in a good spot right now," said All-ACC offensive guard Omoregie Uzzi. "Paul Johnson can win games; that's one thing he knows how to do. ... I think that everybody needs to get on the same page and if everybody's on the same page, it's going to be fine."
The Jackets return their top three rushers -- quarterback Tevin Washington (987 yards, 14 touchdowns), B-back David Sims (698 yards, seven touchdowns) and A-back Orwin Smith (615 yards, 11 touchdowns) -- and a Uzzi-led offensive line, which helped them lead the ACC in rushing (316.4 ypg), total offense (458.7 ypg) and scoring (34.3 ppg). And while they'll still have to find a replacement at receiver for first-round draft pick Stephen Hill, they have an intriguing candidate in 6-foot-2 sophomore Jeff Greene, who played in 12 games last fall.
The more pressing concern is shoring up a defense that faded down the stretch, allowing an average of 30-plus points over its last four games, including an overtime loss in the Sun Bowl to Utah. All-conference linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu is back, along with six other starters, but the unit needs to show progress in its third year under coordinator Al Groh.
It won't take long for Georgia Tech to find out where it sits in the ACC race, as it opens Sept. 3 against two-time defending Coastal Division champ Virginia Tech. The Yellow Jackets also play Virginia and Miami before the calendar turns to October.
"Certainly our goal every year is to win our conference and hopefully represent the ACC and if you do that, I think you'll put yourself in a position to maybe be in the thing at the end," Johnson said. "[But] we've got an awfully tough September ... We'll have a pretty good idea of where we stand coming out of that first month."
The running game should be ferocious, but can Georgia Tech succeed despite a lack of proven wideouts?
7 -- Consecutive bowl defeats for the Yellow Jackets, including last year's 30-27 Sun Bowl loss to Utah. Tech's last postseason victory came in 2004.
Jeremiah Attaochu, LB, Jr. -- The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder led the Jackets in tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (six) despite missing two games with a leg injury. He'll headline a unit trying to improve after ranking 60th in scoring defense in 2011.
Orwin Smith, RB, Sr. -- Smith's career average of 9.7 yards per carry is the highest by any player in ACC history who has run for at least 1,000 yards. He tallied 1.273 all-purpose yards as a junior, including a school-record 95-yard touchdown run.
Rod Sweeting, CB, Sr. -- The 6-foot, 184-pound Sweeting should play a pivotal role in the Jackets' secondary. After an emergent junior campain during which he racked up 56 tackles and three interceptions, he could be poised for even better totals as a senior.
Tevin Washington, QB, Sr. -- Washington ran for 987 yards, the second-most ever by a Yellow Jackets quarterback, to accompany 1,652 passing yards 25 total touchdowns. Accuracy remains a concern; Washington has registered a sub-.500 completion percentage over the last two seasons.
Jeff Greene, WR, So. -- The Jackets throw the ball sparingly, with passes constituting just 19 percent of their offensive plays in 2011. But because of the attention the triple-option generates, there should plenty of opportunities for Greene, a 6-foot-5 target who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds.
Francis Kallon, DE, Fr. -- The 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end is a London native who moved to the U.S. in 2010. He had 13 scholarship offers before he played his first game at Central Gwinnet (Ga.) High last year. A four-star recruit, he could see the field as a pass-rush specialist.
Omoregie Uzzi doesn't hesitate. As quick as the two-time All-ACC guard is off the snap, he responds even faster when asked to name his favorite thing about blocking in Georgia Tech's triple-option offense. "Fire off the ball and just try and use all my force to push the guy in front of me back," he said.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder has accomplished that with spectacular results. The Yellow Jackets chart the number of defenders their offensive linemen knock to the ground. The Lithonia, Ga., native led the team with well over 100 last season, including a whopping 20 on Sept. 24 against North Carolina. "He's very explosive," said coach Paul Johnson. "He generates a lot of power. He's got really good lower-body strength and comes off the ball well."
His name is pronounced O-MORE-Gay, though Uzzi has heard every variation imaginable. "It's something that's happened since I've been a young child," he said. "It doesn't bother me at all."
To simplify matters, he just tells people to call him "Uzzi."
No matter how you pronounce his first name, Uzzi has made an undeniable impact. With him as the centerpiece, the offensive line helped the Jackets average 316.4 rushing yards per game and score 45 touchdowns last year, both of which ranked second in FBS. Uzzi was selected as an All-American by SI.com at season's end.
Uzzi flirted with the draft, submitting paperwork to be evaluated by the NFL draft advisory board. But he opted to come back to Atlanta as a redshirt senior who already has earned a degree in business management. "I try and be a perfectionist and I felt 100 percent sure it wasn't the time," he said.
He returns as part of a Jackets' line that doesn't lack for experience. Like Uzzi, guard Will Jackson is entering his third year as a starter, while tackle Ray Beno and center Jay Finch both made 11 starts in 2011. Factor in the six starts from tackle Tyler Kidney, and the Goon Squad, as they began calling themselves before last season, has a combined total of 83 starts in all.
But it's Uzzi that's the face of those Goons. He was the only Georgia Tech player to appear on the All-ACC preseason team, and it's his name on the Outland Trophy watch list. He's their leader -- a role that's not lost on him. "The guys work, so it's not hard to lead guys who want the same thing," Uzzi said. "Everybody has the same goal: we all want to be the best O-line in the country."
SI: What do you look for when recruiting a quarterback?
PJ: We look for a dual-threat guy, a guy that can throw and run. Someone who is athletic. A regular, slow-footed, drop-back guy who can't run doesn't fit what we do.
SI: Realignment is set to impact the ACC with the coming additions of Syracuse and Pitt. What's your take on the future of the conference?
PJ: I think the conference is in a good position. We've got history and tradition and some really good football teams as part of the conference now, so I think we're on solid ground.
SI: Where do you stand on players using social media? Is that something you talk to them about?
PJ: Oh, yeah. We talk to them all the time about it. It can be scary, but I think if you try and educate them and make sure they understand that once they put something out there it's there forever, you can't take it back. Try and be smart.
SI: You don't have a wide receiver on the roster with a career reception going into the season. Is that a concern?
PJ: You'd like to have a guy coming back, but I feel like we have some talented guys and I'm not that concerned about it. We've been pretty fortunate in that we had [Demaryius] Thomas for a couple years and then we had Stephen Hill and we have some young guys that I think can fall right into that category.