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#STINGDAILY: Square-D Away

April 20, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

It was cold Friday for Georgia Tech’s spring game in Bobby Dodd Stadium, where Paul Johnson found himself looking for warmth in wool on an unseasonably cool night.

The Tech head coach also runs the offense, and therefore has serious skin invested in how the Yellow Jackets perform on that side of the ball – not that he’ll cop to that. Friday, the O-Jackets were underwhelming as the Gold squad – comprised chiefly of the first-team defense and the second-team offense – beat the White 22-10 in tackle football.

In the big picture, that meets criteria to be considered good news.

Johnson’s personal pride and joy, the O, took lumps. That’s the scratchy wool on a coach’s skin. Yet the Jackets’ greater issues recently have been driven by defensive shortcomings; hence the hiring of defensive coordinator Ted Roof to change that.

Each side scored just one offensive touchdown Friday. There’s the warmth.

In five seasons of sample size, there is ample evidence that when the health of the Jackets rebounds, O-linemen return, the offense runs more than a few different plays, and makes adjustments, Tech will be fine on offense. Under Johnson, only rarely have the Jackets been problematic with ball in hand as long as it remains in hand.

On defense, not so much.

Friday, however, there were signs of evolution in the grimy art of slowing others.

The second-team offense (Gold) had a modest 287 total yards against the second-team defense, and the first-team defense (Gold) was especially effective in limiting the White (first-team) offense to 191.

Lee was stuffed on fourth-and-goal at the 1 on the scrimmage’s first drive. That was a trend; the White failed on its two fourth-down tries, and the first-team offense was just 2-for-10 on third downs against the first-team defense.

On the very first play, quarterback Vad Lee of the White squad – comprised chiefly of the first-team offense and the second-team defense – was blitzed as if free gold, and sacked by defensive end Chris Crenshaw.

That was a theme.

“It’s definitely tough when you’ve got a blitz every play, but that’s our defense now,” Lee said. “I like it, especially when they’re going against somebody else.”

The defense was so impressive that on a team that is deeper in the secondary than anywhere, safety Holland Frost, a walk-on redshirt safety whose name has not come up in glowing reports about defensive backs, led all tacklers with eight for the White.

If there was a signature play, it came in the third quarter when Lee fumbled before a play could even get off the ground. No sooner was the ball on the ground behind center than Quayshawn Nealy scooped it up. He’s a linebacker, and yet he was in the backfield so quickly as if shot out of a cannon. Nealy returned it 34 yards for a score.

Next, the Gold D stopped the White on fourth down for a second time and drove for a touchdown by third-string quarterback Tim Byerly for the last score.

Even Johnson was impressed. “I think our guys enjoy being a little more aggressive defensively,” he said.

The game was not without mistakes.

Lee and Justin Thomas each threw interceptions. Lee’s came when he tried to throw a ball away when wide receiver Darren Waller broke off a route. Cornerback Jemea Thomas went deep to pick that one. Thomas’ pick came when his on-target pass to converted quarterback Synjyn Days bounced off the A-back’s helmet.

Linebacker Anthony Harrell gathered it.

So mistakes were going the way of the defense, and not against. When Jemea Thomas – perhaps Tech’s best player — was beaten down the right sideline on the White’s second possession, Lee threw a strike to Waller.

“It was man [coverage], and I took a wrong step,” Jemea Thomas said. “Darren’s a big fella with a long stride, and if you take one wrong step, he’s gone.”

Waller dropped it in the end zone.

Thomas nearly always something to say. There, he said to Waller: “You dropped money.”

Perhaps. Better, there are signs that the Jackets may allow opposing offenses to cash in less easily.

“Our defense is just tough,” Lee said. “I said it all spring; they’re a physical bunch.”

When’s the last time you heard or read that about Tech’s defense?

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