Dec. 31, 2016
THE MODERATOR: We want to congratulate Georgia Tech on winning the 72nd TaxSlayer Bowl. We will have Coach Johnson open up with a statement, then we’ll take questions, followed by the players.
COACH JOHNSON: First of all, I was really proud of my team and the way they were resilient and kept fighting today. Hats off to the University of Kentucky. I thought they played really hard and competed the whole game. We were fortunate to make some plays when we had to have them. We hit a few more big plays than they did. That was probably the difference in the game.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. A lot of big fourth-down plays that went your way today. That seemed to be a big key to the game.
COACH JOHNSON: Yeah, we got some good stops defensively on fourth down that helped. I went brain-dead there from my own 10. I was going to call timeout, but when they didn’t cover the guard, I figured we’d let it roll. We did. Got the first down, so it was good. Went on down and scored.
Q. Dedrick has had quite the freshman year in a lot of regards, on and off the field. What do you think today’s game does for him moving forward? Do you feel the maturity level is also going to keep improving?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, I certainly hope so. I think he can be a very special player. He’s a very talented young man. We’ve got to try to help him grow up.
Sometimes, you know, at that age, when you’re 18, we all didn’t make great decisions. It’s our job to help him make the right decisions because he’s got a bright future if he’ll continue to work hard.
I was getting on him today. I told him he was getting a little fat. But he was a workhorse today. He played tough.
Q. Three wins last year, nine this year, big win over Georgia, trophy going back to Atlanta. You have to love the momentum?
COACH JOHNSON: 3-0 in the SEC East, got Tennessee next. Hopefully we can take this and build on it. We have a good nucleus returning, but we lose some really key players.
Offensively I always kind of look at the offense like baseball up the middle. We lose our center, quarterback, which are both three-year starters, that will be big guys to replace. Defensively we lose some key defensive linemen. P.J. Davis will be hard to replace as well.
Q. Back to the fourth down thing, obviously a big play. Were you concerned the fact that they were that close and it was still a 10-3 game at that point?
COACH JOHNSON: Yeah, I’m always concerned. We caught it on doubles. The guy flew back, which gave me a chance to look and see how they were lined up. If they didn’t jump off-sides, if they had been lined up in the gaps, I would have had a timeout. I had the official standing beside me.
When they didn’t cover the guard, it was kind of a gimme, if we don’t drop the snap or whatever. J.T. didn’t give me much time to think about it. He quick-snapped me.
Ran behind Parker Braun, who is one of our better players. Dedrick is one of our better players, even though they’re freshmen. It worked out.
Q. Take us to the play call on the final scoring drive.
COACH JOHNSON: I noticed the drive before they were firing the corner on tail motion. What we called was a stop route. But I thought they might fire the corner, and they did. So there was nobody covering.
When the tail motion came, I think they thought it was a run. They fired the guy. J.T. made a nice throw. That’s still a good catch. In that situation, it would have been easy. We had a couple drops today, but Ricky made a nice play on it.
Q. Looking at the fullness of Johnson’s career, what are your predominant thoughts on his career?
COACH JOHNSON: I mean, he’s had a great career, no doubt. He’s such a great kid. He’s just been a joy to coach, a joy to work with. He’s got a great football mind. I think when he finishes playing football, he wants to coach. He’ll be really good at it.
Nothing much bothers him. He stays pretty calm. Sometimes you have to be gone for a year or two before people really realize what you did. There’s no question that he’ll go down as, you know, one of the greats at Georgia Tech. I mean, he’s had a heck of a career.
Q. Can you talk about what Harrison Butker meant to this program the last four years?
COACH JOHNSON: Unbelievable. I was so happy for Harrison today when he hit four field goals. It’s really something because I was joking with him leading up to the game that we were going to go for two on extra points. He was tied for the all-time leading scoring at Georgia Tech. He was clutch. The one before halftime was big. The one to go up by 16 was big.
That’s when one I could kick myself in the tail for. I played to go up 16. I didn’t want to take a chance on not getting three points there on the third down. I was about that close to throwing it off the play, which would have been a walk-in touchdown if I’d have done it. That was a bad call on my part.
But that was clutch, I mean, to make that field goal. I felt like if we got up 16, the odds of them getting in, two two-point conversions, wasn’t good.
Q. There was a sequence in the first quarter where Coach Stoops seemed agitated on what was going on on your sidelines. What was your interpretation of what was going on at that time?
COACH JOHNSON: I have no idea. On our sidelines?
You’d have to ask him. He didn’t say anything after the game or whatever. I wouldn’t have any idea.
Q. Coach Stoops said the offensive line did a great job against Louisville in the previous game. Today you had their quarterback on the run. What did you see from the defensive line today?
COACH JOHNSON: I thought we got good pressure. We struggled at times to contain. He’s really good at that. Going in, that was one of my biggest concerns. He hurt us the one long run there in the fourth quarter.
But all in all, we got pretty good pressure, yeah. I thought the defensive line did pretty well.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about the officiating in the first half. I know you can’t get into specifics. Seemed like maybe they were a little flustered. There were some bizarre sequences for both sides. You were both chewing them out.
COACH JOHNSON: You know, the game’s over. Those officials have a tough job. Everybody doesn’t see things the same way, so…
I got on our guys at halftime. When I say ‘our guys,’ I’m the lead culprit. I didn’t want anybody saying anything to the officials in the second half. It just doesn’t do any good. I’m sure they’re doing the best they can do. I’ll just leave it at that.
Q. What was your sense of the level of frustration?
COACH JOHNSON: Probably some frustration. We did some dumb stuff. The one right at the kickoff to start the second half, we would have got a 15-yard penalty on the guy. We’ve got to hold our composure better than that.
It’s a physical game, emotional game. The way the game was going, both sides wanted to win. They were competing.
Q. Can you talk about the strip and fumble recovery. Pat and P.J. made big plays for you.
COACH JOHNSON: That was a great play. Trying to run a sprint-out pass. P.J. came on a blitz, slapped the ball loose, picked it up, was able to get it in the end zone. Can’t think of a better way to start the game. That was a great start.
The blocked punt could have been huge. We had a big mistake there. Following that ball, especially not in the last minute, then we had a drop, an overthrow. If we could have gotten more than three out of that, that would have been huge.
Q. What was the injury to Freddie Burden, when did he go out?
COACH JOHNSON: We don’t know how serious it is. You’d just be speculating right now to say anything. He went out I think right at the start of the fourth quarter, yeah.
Q. Do you think that blocked punt was a result of the rugby-style approach?
COACH JOHNSON: Our blocked punt? Yes. He stepped right into the guy. It was a bad snap, too. It was a low snap.
Q. On the punt following, he punted straight ahead. Is that his call to make normally?
COACH JOHNSON: No. That’s our special teams coaching. He’s done a great job all year. Our punt team has been really good all year. The last half of the year, Ryan has done a great job. It was just unfortunate. The defense went out and did a great job holding them.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach.
COACH JOHNSON: Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll open it up for questions for the players.
Q. Dedrick, first of all, what is your best guess of how many family and friends you had that came down to watch? You’ve had an interesting freshman season, to say the least, on and off the field. What do you think this game does for you going forward in your career? Have there been a couple lessons you’ve learned this season?
Dedrick Mills: I mean, I learned a lot, playing with these guys, the big boys. So, I mean, it kind of, like, motivated me going down the line to push harder because I know they ain’t going to be here no more. I got to go twice as harder than I did this season.
Q. How many family and friends?
Dedrick Mills: I had 20 tickets of my own because players gave me some. I had at least like 20-some family members. Godparents bought 43 tickets, they sold all of them. I had about 60 people here.
Q. Dedrick, talk about the fourth-and-one play at the 15 yard line. What were your thoughts about that play?
Dedrick Mills: I mean, I feel like the fourth-and-one, if it’s there, we got to get it. I know we going for it. It’s coming to me so we got to get it.
Justin Thomas: I knew we had to get it. If we didn’t get it, that’s points given to them, without them having to get a yard. I thought he was going to call a timeout after the motion, but he didn’t. We were getting five, six yards a carry with Mills anyway. It was a real good first down.
Q. How surprised were you that he did go for it?
Justin Thomas: I was surprised. Especially that early in the game, being that far on your own side of the field.
That’s just the trust he had in us. We made him right.
Q. Justin and Pat, has it sunk in this is your last college game? What are your emotions like right now?
Justin Thomas: I mean, I guess going into it, you know it’s the last one. It’s a great feeling. Everything has to come to an end one day. Happy it ended like this. Looking forward to see what the future holds.
Patrick Gamble: Yeah, same what Justin said. Everything has to come to an end. I love my time here at Tech, man. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. My teammates, the school, the institution. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.
It hit me when I got the trophy, held it up. That’s the last time I’ll be with them boys. They got a lot of success ahead of them. They just got to keep pushing on.
Q. Justin, what do you see for the future for you now? Where do you go from here?
Justin Thomas: I guess for me, I’ll probably take a week or two off. I’ll start training, go for the next level. If it works out, it works out. If it don’t, got to find something else. But I plan for it to work out.
Q. Your last collegiate pass was a big completion. How did you see that play unfolding? How important was that play?
Justin Thomas: I think it was very important. They were firing the corners late in the game, like basically every play. They knew we were trying to run the clock out. He was getting five, six yards a carry.
We kind of changed up the play call how we did it, set the guy in motion. They thought we were trying to run it again. Had nobody over top to help the far corner.
Q. Pat, the defensive line did a great job today putting pressure on the quarterback. Your last career tackle was a tackle for a loss. How satisfying was that, especially with the physicality of the play up front?
Patrick Gamble: It was very important for us in the game plan. We had to get pressure when they threw the ball. We knew they was going to run the football. When it was time for them to throw the ball, we had to push and get some pressure, man. Lucky we did that, so…
It’s a good feeling. Good way to go out.
Q. Patrick, you start the fourth play of the game with a defensive touchdown. Probably with the knowledge that your offense is going to score points for you, when you start out with a defensive touchdown, is that as good an omen that you can get for what might happen?
Patrick Gamble: Definitely is. You can get a defensive touchdown. We score, the offense hasn’t touched the field. Always a plus. Extra points on the board. The offense kept moving the ball well today. It helped out in our favor.
Q. Pat, there was some pushing and shoving. What did you think?
Patrick Gamble: We just out there playing hard, man. We 21, 22-year-old men. You get to pushing and shoving, there’s always going to be some talking, man.
We got to learn to keep our composure. It’s just a part of the game. It’s part of the game. No harm, no foul.
Q. Justin, take us back to that fourth-and-one early in the first half, deep in your own territory. The guard wasn’t covered. Coach Johnson said you might have quick-snapped him a little bit. Were you trying to get that play off in a hurry before he called a timeout?
Justin Thomas: No. The guards were uncovered the whole game, basically. They were in a 3-4 defense. That’s just how it usually tallies up in motion. That’s how it works in practice.
He say I quick-snapped him, I probably snapped before he could call a timeout. Ended up going in our favor. Probably good we didn’t take the timeout.
Q. The way you finished the year, getting these wins after the rough start at the beginning of the season, how nice is it to go out on a high note like you did in 2014?
Justin Thomas: It’s great. We came in, I guess our first season, we went out on a high note, had a great season. Last year, it was horrible. It was something that you wouldn’t want to experience.
So just coming out, our class regrouping, getting the guys together, to come out of the season we had this year, I think it was a great turnaround, a great finish to our career.
Patrick Gamble: Yeah, it was an awesome finish. Like he say, start off 3-3, wind up winning six of the last seven. I mean, it couldn’t end in a better way for us. Coming to a prestigious bowl, TaxSlayer Bowl, bring a win. Something to remember definitely for the rest of your life.
Q. Justin, how was the transition when Freddy went out and Kenny came in? Pretty smooth for you?
Justin Thomas: Yeah. It was just like I didn’t think much of it. Kenny did his job. Couldn’t ask for him and step in and do any better truthfully.
Q. It looked like most of Dedrick’s yards were tough yards. What are your thoughts, Dedrick and Justin?
Dedrick Mills: It wasn’t that tough. It wasn’t that tough. Behind the offensive line, running off their blocks. Made it easier for me to find holes and get through them.
Justin Thomas: I think he was running hard. He was coming in as a true freshman, running hard from day one when he stepped on campus. I think he translated over. Guys up front were doing their jobs. They were moving the guys off the line, getting the backers. Made his job easier.
He’s going to have to stay on them to make them look good.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: We’re going to let Coach Stoops have an opening statement, then we’ll take questions.
COACH STOOPS: First, again, thank you to all the folks from the bowl and the bowl committee. It’s been a remarkable week. It’s a first-class bowl game. On behalf of the team and our administration, once again I thank you for everything that you guys have done. It was a great environment. Beautiful stadium to play in. Gorgeous day.
I’d like to congratulate and give credit to Coach Johnson and Georgia Tech. They played better. They executed in critical moments. They deserved to win the game. So I congratulate them.
As I just told the team, we’re extremely disappointed with the way we finished in losing this game. But I’m very proud of them. That’s a great group to coach. There’s a lot to build on. I’m very excited about the future.
I thank our seniors. Very, very few in numbers, but they’re very good quality young men and quality players. We’re going to miss them.
I appreciate the way they kind of set the tone for us throughout the year when adversity hit. They were always very steady. Without that positive leadership, you’re never going to build your program. I know we’ve taken very monumental steps to push this program further.
We return a whole bunch of football players. They deserve a little bit of time off right now, then we’ll get back to work when we get back when the second semester begins. But I’m proud of this team, their efforts, everything that we’ve asked them to do.
We’ll continue to build, become a stronger program. I’m excited about the future. I can’t let one game get myself or this team down or take anything away from the good things that they did.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. Obviously you were upset there at the end of the first half. Explain what happened and the explanation you got from officials.
COACH STOOPS: The only thing I was upset about, I was getting conflicting reports. The bottom line is, he was inbounds. They later told me he was inbounds. I couldn’t understand why they were waiting at that point before they reset it to three. This was one second left. It was like a timeout or something.
I mean, he was inbounds. I just didn’t understand why they just let them have as much time as they want to set it up and kick an extra point.
I believe there was just some confusion. Maybe some of them thought it was out of bounds when he was inbounds. They later told me he was inbounds. I just couldn’t understand why they would, with one second, give them as much time as they wanted to line up.
I thought if you’re inbounds, you got first down, the clock winds. I just wanted clarification.
Q. Were you upset with Georgia Tech’s blocking when you got a couple guys injured?
COACH STOOPS: No, not at all. I was upset with somebody saying something to me. I have great respect for Coach Johnson, but nobody else over there is going to say a word to me.
Q. Stephen went virtually untouched against Louisville. He was under pressure a lot today. What was the difference?
COACH STOOPS: He was under a lot of pressure. We were disappointed. We had some shots. We didn’t get good protection, we really didn’t. We didn’t protect well enough to get the ball down the field.
With any quarterback, if you’re affecting the quarterback with pressure, mixing up looks… They did a nice job. They played well. We needed to protect better. We were just off on shots and plays with pressures and coverages.
As I mentioned before, you know this game’s going to go quick. We are methodical in our approach. They’re methodical in their approach. Turnovers were going to be key. I really thought that set us back early with the scoop for a touchdown, getting behind. That’s very hard to overcome against Georgia Tech.
You have to play keep-up. You have to score. Possessions are limited. You got to score points earlier than we did.
Q. Two critical plays, failed fourth down conversion, goal line. Then the third-and-four from about midfield at the end, blitzed off the corner.
COACH STOOPS: I thought the fourth downs were very critical early. We missed some short-yardage opportunities that we’ve been very good at this season. That was critical.
They converted a fourth down. We didn’t. Those are critical plays. I don’t regret going for it on fourth-and-one driving because I know we needed some points. We could have always done some different things, got a bigger set, taken our time, done that.
Late in the game, our guys were getting antsy. We had to get aggressive on the perimeter. They were milking us through the middle, they were getting soft. We were putting our guys on the quarterback and the dive. We had to handle the perimeter. We told them to be aggressive once they saw the option get away, not to blitz it.
We have a call that we do that, but that’s in desperation on the goal line. Just made an aggressive mistake. It was just a mistake.
Q. Obviously first-time experience for these players in this program. What do you think, now that the game is over, that you will learn from the experience that will help you in the future?
COACH STOOPS: I think we learned a great deal from this experience. It’s definitely a lot to build on. Our players got a good taste of the post-season, not only with being in the post-season, but being in this bowl game that I have great respect for. The history of this bowl, the people that played in it, it’s significant. I’m very proud to get here. I’m proud of this team.
I think as we get a taste for this, we will want more. They know that we can win, we’re capable of it. We can play with anybody we line up with. We just got to get better and build on it. I’m sure we will.
Q. Mark, talk about how critical the short-yardage play was deep in their own territory.
COACH STOOPS: That doesn’t surprise you because they execute so well. There was obviously some risk there. But they wouldn’t do it if they don’t have great confidence in getting six inches, eight inches, whatever it was. Coach Johnson, they do that a lot. We’re anticipating them going for it on fourth down. That’s what they do. It’s very difficult to stop that for a yard. They got it.
Again, it takes them executing, takes guts to call it. They did it. Certainly was critical at that moment.
Q. You talked a lot about discipline going into this, you needed that on defense. How do you think the guys did that with the triple option, especially with the penalties?
COACH STOOPS: The penalties I have to look at. I know the one on the punt was silly with Kash. Some of the other penalties, it’s a blur to me right now. But overall, discipline, with the execution of the triple option, I was very pleased with. There were some mishaps, but they put a lot of pressure on you. We had some stops.
You have to score against Georgia Tech. When you beat them, you’re scoring. But certainly we can do better. I thought we got soft inside. That’s, again, where the pressure of them executing, keeping you off balance, getting those three, four, five yards. That’s why you know the game is going to be short.
First downs, they execute. You have the ball on the ground a couple times. I wish when the ball was on the perimeter, we had great support where we had pitch covered, two or three guys on the quarterback, the ball is loose, we just didn’t get them. That’s key.
The ball was on the ground. We didn’t get it. They did. That can certainly help you. But I thought overall we defended them okay. Certainly we can play better. I’m not sure what the total yards was, probably mid 300s. But I’d like to play a little better, be a little more stout, in particular on the D-line. Some of those yards I just felt like we could be more stern.
Q. Why was it so flat starting out the third quarter?
COACH STOOPS: We missed on some opportunities. That gets aggravating. You can’t go three-and-out against them because, again, the possessions.
We just were not playing our best. Give them credit. They did some good things. We were just slightly off. When you’re not getting a whole bunch of plays, a whole bunch of possessions, you have to make the most of what you get.
Q. What did you think of all the fans that showed up? Anything you want to say to them?
COACH STOOPS: Yeah, I thought it was an absolutely incredible environment. So pleased for our team and for our fan base to see that kind of support. It’s just fun to be a part of.
I’ve said it a long time, I feel an obligation to put a product on the field that our fan base is proud of. We’re going to build on this. We need the stadium filled. We have a bunch of good players that it means a great deal to play at a high level for them because they feel the effects, they feel the positive energy. How can you not? You walk around this city this week, you walk around our hotel, our luncheon the other day, our fans are exceptional. I thank them for coming. I wish we’d have played a little better. I promise you we’ll get back at it and we’ll have a very good football team next year. I thank them for their support. They’ve been phenomenal.
Q. Moving into spring, will there be an open competition at quarterback?
COACH STOOPS: We just got done with this game. I mean, every position, we compete every day.
Q. You mentioned there was some off-sides, Coach Johnson was talking to you. Can you elaborate at all?
COACH STOOPS: No.
I will say this. I care about my players and I’m going to check on them. I didn’t accuse anybody of doing anything illegal. I have great respect for Coach Johnson. I will talk to him. We have a great relationship.
But, again, nobody else is going to say a word to me.
Q. Any updates on Boom about the draft, what’s going to happen moving forward?
COACH STOOPS: We had a conversation with he and his parents. We’ll continue to look into it.
Q. The decision to go for it deep in Georgia Tech territory versus going for the field goal?
COACH STOOPS: I felt like we needed the points.
Q. Obviously it didn’t work out. They took the ball and went for a long drive. Momentum swing there or was that unrelated?
COACH STOOPS: I think it was a game we needed the points. They had it deep in their territory. It was fourth-and-one. You know, you can always second guess that.
Backed up 10 or 15, converted it. We missed it. Good for him.
You can always second guess it. I don’t regret that decision one bit. Does it hurt us? Yes, it probably did. I would have liked to have converted it.
Q. I know it might be difficult to think right now, can you talk about the success that this season was and how you can build for next year, the right way this program is going right now?
COACH STOOPS: There’s an awful lot we can build from. I’m so proud of this team, these players, everybody. We’ve come a long way. If you think it’s easy to build a program in this league, then you really don’t know much about football.
We’ve come a long way. I appreciate our players because when it was 0-2, the criticism we got was deserved. You have to be strong enough to overcome that. Our players were. Our team was.
We had adversity. It’s just how you respond to it, whether it’s injuries, different things, bad starts, bad breaks, bad play, bad coaching. You have to overcome it. The better you are, you know, you’ll overcome things. Our football team has come a long, long way. I’m very proud of them.
They’ve improved. Again, they set the tone for the future. We have I want to say 36 of our top 44 back. That’s good for us and our future. We’re excited about it.
Q. When you look back at this season in a couple weeks or months, what is going to stand out the most as far as what you’re going to take away from it more than anything?
COACH STOOPS: I don’t know if there’s any one thing except the resiliency of our team. If you have listened to me in the off-season, as we were talking about building this program, it went back to me talking about capacity, just our players maturing, being mentally tougher, being physically tougher, being able to be in the weight room longer, being able to have our off-season program be more stringent, more difficult, longer and harder. They handled that. Two-a-days longer and tougher. That’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’re going to continue to push forward. We have to.
So I have no doubt that our team will. I know we learned a lot about ourselves here. I feel good about the staff that we have in place, where we’re headed. We’ll take a great deal.
Q. After you cut it to 26-18, you had the kickoff, what was supposed to happen?
COACH STOOPS: We miss-hit it. I wish Austin could have kicked. Austin, to his credit, fought through some things this week with his leg. It was not the same injury, something that he had carried over from the Louisville game. Nothing major. Nothing we need to pry into.
Miles just miss-hit the ball. So we felt like we had three timeouts left. I was conversing with Coach Eliot, whether we’d kick it deep with the timeouts and stop or go for the onside. We wanted to see what the look was. We tried to hit the dead spot. If you get a funky ball, you can get the ball. If not, you’re going to pin them on the 30 if you kick it deep.
Anyway, with the way Austin’s leg was, they may have gotten to the 30 anyway. Tried to get to the dead spot, but he just miss-hit it a little bit.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
COACH STOOPS: Thank you.