The Good Word | By Jon Cooper
It’s always a long road from the start of fall camp to “toe meets leather,” which this year comes on Sept. 1.
Navigating that road without stubbing a toe can be difficult.
The Yellow Jackets cleared another hurdle on Saturday, completing their second intrasquad scrimmage and with it, wrapping up fall camp. Those milestones put them on the express lane to begin thinking about opening day versus Alcorn State.
“We got through, I think, without anybody getting hurt, so that’s good. That’s my biggest goal,” Head coach Paul Johnson said on Saturday morning. “We had a lot of guys out. There were four offensive linemen sitting out. Not anything serious but we had a lot of guys out.”
The guys that were in did some good work on both sides of the ball during the scrimmage, which consisted of 13 series and right around 100 plays.
Offensively, the Jackets put the ball in the end zone three times and concluded two other drives with field goals. Included was a six-play, 70-yard touchdown drive, with the final half of that yardage coming from A-back Nathan Cottrell, who went around the right side and took it to the house.
There were several big-play makers on Saturday, as the offense hit five plays of at least 20 yards and moved the ball well, with eight of their 13 drives lasting at least six plays.
“I thought (senior wide receiver) Brad Stewart made some plays. He made some nice catches, made a couple of nice third-down plays,” Johnson said. “(Redshirt freshman B-back) Jordan Mason made a really good catch over on the sideline. He made a nice play off the blitz.”
Johnson was optimistic sophomore wideout Stephen Dolphus, who has been playing with a cast on his injured hand, will be among the big playmakers in the near future.
“He tried to push through. The cast is so big it kind of hinders him,” said Johnson. “He’s going to get it cut off next week, I think. I think his hand still hurts. Once you get in there it throbs, I’m sure. So it’s just going to take a little bit of time for him.”
The guys distributing the ball had solid days, beginning with starter TaQuon Marshall.
“Today was probably the best day he’s had throwing the ball,” Johnson said. “He threw the ball well.”
Redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver also made some plays and continues to build in confidence as he completes his second fall camp, even if dealing with the non-contact rule has been frustrating for him.
“He’s a good runner,” Johnson said of the 6-2, 182-pounder. “Probably being in a gold jersey takes away from Tobias because he’s more of a slasher and the way we play, if somebody one-hand touches him, they’re down. TaQuon, as well, but Tobias even more because that’s his game.”
True freshman James Graham also got some action at signal-caller in his first scrimmage since being moved up the depth chart, following last week’s likely season-ending surgery for presumed backup QB Lucas Johnson. Coach Johnson expressed his patience with Graham.
“He struggled,” said Johnson, quickly adding. “It probably wasn’t fair to him. He’d been there one day.”
The offensive line had some struggles Saturday, something not necessarily unexpected with four of them sitting out.
While the defense took some shots on Saturday, it also gave back as good as it got.
Four times, the defense forced the offense into three-and-outs and it created plenty of mayhem in the process. The defense recorded 10 tackles for loss, including four sacks, broke up five passes and created two turnovers — an interception by freshman defensive back Jaylon King at the defense’s 20 and a fumble recovery at the offense’s 35.
“There are always negative plays in a scrimmage,” Johnson said, with a laugh. “It’s a lot easier to get them, too, because you don’t care if you blitz. Because if they score, it’s a scrimmage.”
Despite making some big plays on Saturday, but the young secondary remains very much a work-in-progress with plenty of viable candidates.
“I don’t know that I’d single anybody out. They’re all about the same,” he said. “I think they’re working hard and they’re getting it but it’s not like we can say, ‘Okay, let’s take [so-and-so] and he’s our cover corner and we’re going to put him to the field and it’s over for whoever.’ They’re all capable and probably a lot of them will play.
“[Freshman Juanyeh Thomas] is like drinking from a firehose. They’ve got him playing strong safety. Against our offense that’s tough to do,” he added. “[Junior Christian Campbell] can move back and forth. Kaleb Oliver was back there and Malik [Rivera] probably were the guys that ran with the ones but it could be anybody back there.”
On the kicking front, sophomore Brenton King and freshman Wesley Wells both converted field-goal attempts — King hitting from 35 yards out, Wells from 23.
The team will take Sunday off but Monday promises to be a big day.
The student-athletes start fall semester classes then finally hit the practice field with the start of the season in sight. Johnson, meanwhile, will use Monday to meet with his staff and set the two-deep.
“I’ve got question marks on all of it,” he said, with a laugh. “We’ll sit down Monday morning and decide and there’ll be some guys that rotate but I think we know who the first teams are.”