April 23, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
You don’t really associate Paul Johnson-coached teams with flight.
Literally looking at Georgia Tech’s 2017 spring game on Friday night you still wouldn’t, as of the 105 plays run only 31 saw the ball in the air — not counting those that involved pitches, of course. That 29.5 percent actually is a little high for the Jackets, who averaged throwing 20.7 percent of the time last season, but is right about where the teams were last spring, when they combined for 29 passes in the 2016 spring game.
Metaphorically, however, there was lots of flying going on, as in players “flying around” making big hits and aggressive plays that resulted in a surprising hero, a final-play “Hail Mary” and a dramatic 21-16 Gold win over White.
It also resulted in a rather pleased head coach.
“It was kind of a fun game,” said Johnson. “I think the guys flew around and had some fun. We had more people dinged in that little spring game than we have all spring. It was the dangdest thing I’ve ever seen. Hopefully, none of it was serious. Tonight’s just the culmination of spring practice, so hopefully they had fun.
“It was great,” said junior QB TaQuon Marshall, who led White to three field goals in five first-half possessions. “I got to see what it was going to be like in a game atmosphere a little bit, so it was exciting to see everybody fly around a little bit. I enjoyed it. It was fun.”
The game was certainly fun for the fans, who got to see 13 plays of at least 10 yards, five plays of at least 30 yards and three of at least 50, including a 61-yard catch and run by fifth-year senior B-back Brady Swilling from junior QB Chase Martenson with 1:32 left that provided the winning points for Gold. Swilling snuck out of the backfield and went unchecked downfield, where he was all alone to make an easy reception. He then weaved his way for the final 15 yards into the end zone.
“When it was coming to me, really the only thing I was thinking of was, `If I drop this there’s no living that down.’ So you just have to focus on the catch first,” Swilling said. “It definitely was nice. I was going in there try to fill up whatever hole I needed to in the offense, fit in wherever I can and I finally got a little lucky.”
“I was happy for Brady,” said Johnson. “That’s fun for him and Chase to come out and do that.”
The White responded by moving into Gold territory on its ensuing drive. A final-play jump ball, from redshirt freshman Jay Jones pass to sophomore wide receiver Jalen Camp (the game’s top receiver (four catches for 44 yards), was tipped and grabbed by Gold team junior DB A.J. Gray, whose interception sealed the game and sent football into the summer.
“The way they were positioned, I knew it was going to be a tipped ball because I knew Jalen was going to try to go over the top and I knew the corner was going to try to pick it,” said Gray. “Coach (McCollum) always says, `Don’t stop running to the ball because you never know what’s going to happen.’ You saw it. A tipped ball [and] I was right there because I kept running.”
With junior quarterback Matthew Jordan sitting out as he recovers from a foot injury, the other three potential starters — Marshall (White), Jones (White) and redshirt freshman Lucas Johnson (Gold) — ran the show. Jones and Johnson were their team’s leading rushers, with Jones netting 81 yards, while Johnson had 59 net. They also had the night’s longest runs, with Johnson rambling 70 for a touchdown in the first quarter to give Gold a 7-3 lead and Jones going for 56 yards in the second quarter. Marshall also had 38 yards on the ground.
Gold QBs Johnson and Martenson went a combined 9-for-16 for 144 yards while White signal-callers Marshall and Jones were 6-for-15 for 78 yards. With three fumbles and two interceptions in the game, it wasn’t quite as clean as the head Yellow Jacket had hoped, especially considering previous performances.
“They didn’t play as well tonight as they played most of the spring.” Paul Johnson said. “I was a little disappointed in the way they played. We missed a lot of open receivers, especially play-action and the ball security — Jay had that thing all over the place. He’s going to make something happen one way or the other. But he had done a better job of executing with ball security than tonight.”
Johnson was proud of the guts and determination Jones showed in even playing, as he hurt his ankle earlier in the week, and feels the quarterbacks will be better off from being out there.
“I think tonight was good for those young guys and even TaQuon because he hasn’t played a lot,” Johnson said. “Jay and Lucas redshirted all (last) year. This is the first time they’ve played in front of a crowd and I thought Lucas handled it really well. He just kind of plays, doesn’t let much bother him. The biggest issue with Jay tonight was ball security. That thing was all over the place. He had been doing a better job of that.”
The duel for back-up B-back between sophomores KirVonte Benson and Quaide Weimerskirch stayed competitive as both were solid — Benson had nine carries for 57 yards and a TD while Weimerskirch carried seven times for 26 yards and had two receptions for 18 more, including one that ended with a hurdle over would-be tackler Lamont Simmons.
“I think we both are really good players. I think we showed that this whole spring,” said Benson, who capped a third-quarter possession with a five-yard touchdown burst up the middle. “We got better. So I think tonight we showcased what we can do.”
The defense showcased what it could do and did plenty of flying around of its own on Friday, recording five sacks (three for Gold, two for White) and 16 tackles for loss (nine for Gold, seven for White).
“That’s one thing we’ve been working on as well as a defense, bringing energy to the game,” said junior linebacker Brant Mitchell, who matched a game-high with seven tackles (four solo, 2.5 for loss) for the Gold (Gold cornerback Lance Austin also had seven stops). “[When] we get guys to the ball, plays happen. Big plays and big turnovers happen. So that’s what we’re going to continue to focus on doing.”
Gold defensive linemen Antonio Simmons and Desmond Branch were part of a frontline charge, combining for 11 tackles (Simmons with six, Branch with five), 4.5 tackles for loss (Simmons 3, Branch1.5) and three sacks (Simmons 2, Branch 1).
“I think as our D-line’s concerned, we’ve got a lot of guys rushing the ball and that helps with freeing me up, too,” Mitchell said. “So I think it’s all around. It takes everybody.”
Everybody on the defense was flying around if you ask Marshall, who was frequently running to avoid pressure, as were all the QBs.
“Oh, they’ve been flying around,” Marshall said about the defense. “Every time we’ve had scrimmages they’ve been flying around. Some days it’s the offense getting ahead of the defense and other days it’s the defense on top of the offense but they’ve been flying around making everybody better.”
That doesn’t mean the unit is satisfied with where it stands going into the summer.
“I think we’ve gotten better as a whole but we still have room for improvement,” said Gray. “In order to be the defense we want to be, we have to keep working.”
Sophomore kicker Shawn Davis will continue working in his quest to be the successor to Georgia Tech’s all-time leading scorer, Harrison Butker. Davis helped himself on Friday, nailing field goals of 38, 35 and 33 yards for White. He’s confident that he’s good from around 52, 53 yards and will look to work on extending his kickoff range — something not on display during the Spring Game, as there were no kickoffs or punt returns.
“This spring I would say I was putting it anywhere from goal line to two or three (yards) deep,” he said. “So this offseason, I’ll try to get stronger there so I don’t have to worry about returns.”
Now comes a long summer of working out and making improvements. But leaving on a good note was a nice place to start.
“I think we had a good spring practice. All-in-all, I thought we got better at some things,” Johnson said. “All you can do is ask the kids to work hard and practice hard and they’ve done that, so I don’t have any qualms with the way they’ve worked. I’m sure they’re glad it’s over.”