April 22, 2018
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
It’s usually not encouraging when a coach highlights postgame comments by saying, “Nobody got hurt.”
But Georgia Tech football head coach Paul Johnson was perfectly happy to say that on Friday night.
Staying healthy was the order of the day for the Yellow Jackets’ annual spring game, which completed what Johnson considered to be a successful spring practice.
“Spring games, as a general rule, are just to let the guys have some fun at the end of spring practice,” Johnson said. “We had a pretty grueling spring practice. The game tonight, we were missing a lot of guys on both offense and defense. All-in-all I thought it was a successful game. I don’t think anybody got hurt seriously.”
The game, which ended with Blue beating White, 24-14, saw a lot of familiar names not on the field, but opened the door — for at least one night — for some of the roster’s young up-and-comers, while also unveiling the new 3-4 defense.
Among those sitting were quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who was kept away from the team after coming down with strep throat, and four likely starters on the offensive line (center Kenny Cooper, left guard Parker Braun and fifth-year seniors Andrew Marshall and Jake Stickler). On the defensive side, lineman Desmond Branch was in New Mexico at his brother’s wedding, while true freshman lineman T.K. Chimedza and linebackers David Curry and Jakob Brashear sat with injuries, joining safeties A.J. Gray and Jalen Johnson, who missed the entire spring.
All those vacancies led to some shifting — starting offensive tackle Jahaziel Lee shifted to center and sophomore quarterback Lucas Johnson went from being slated to split reps with redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver on the White team to taking the majority the snaps for Blue.
“It was cool. I always love playing in front of crowds,” said Johnson, who had been limited for much of the spring with a hamstring injury and had only started running again last Monday. “I had to settle down a little bit, I was a little too amped up in the beginning. But I settled down, just had to keep the ball moving.”
Johnson hit 5-of-17 passes for 143 yards with a touchdown and one interception, connecting on long throws to wide receiver Brad Stewart (three catches for 100 yards, including a 53-yarder) and A-back Clinton Lynch (a 33-yard touchdown).
The TD was especially satisfying for Lynch, who was playing his final spring game.
“It’s been too long since I’ve been in the end zone,” he said. “It’s been a while since I actually finished a spring … I’m just happy to finish healthy.”
About the only hitch in Lynch’s game was his inability to properly celebrate.
“It was supposed to be `Duck, Duck, Goose,’ but I messed it up.” he said of the botched celebration following his touchdown catch, with a laugh. “I sat down with everybody. I didn’t get the memo.”
Just getting each play started could have been tricky, as Lee didn’t start playing center until last week and had TaQuon Marshall on the receiving end of his snaps for both of the week. Fortunately, he and Lucas Johnson are roommates.
“On Wednesday, I was getting all the snaps with Chet [Lagod]. Jahaziel and I really hadn’t had a lot of time to get snaps,” Lucas Johnson said. “Today, we were in the room taking snaps in there. It’s just going to take repetition. It was his first week at center and you couldn’t expect him to be perfect. But it was a step in the right direction.”
Sophomore B-back Jerry Howard took several steps in the right direction, rushing for a game-high 64 yards for the White, including a one-yard touchdown burst to open the scoring. It concluded a positive second spring for him.
“I felt like I was more comfortable with the plays and I picked it up fast and adjusted with my reads and I worked on my blocking a lot,” he said. “So I felt like I had a pretty good spring.”
Howard, last year’s starter KirVonte Benson (seven carries, 21 yards for the Blue) and redshirt freshman Jordan Ponchez-Mason (seven carries, 24 yards for the White) all ran effectively, each powering in for scores.
“I feel good about that position,” Paul Johnson said. “Jerry’s going to play. With him and KirVonte. Jordan is a good athlete and we’ve got a couple of guys coming in. So we’ve got some pretty good depth there.”
The new-look defense showed fans right away just how disruptive it has the potential to be. On the game’s first series, inside linebacker Brant Mitchell busted in and caught Johnson for a five-yard loss. On the next play, a big push forced a bad pitch, which Benson recovered for the loss of another 11 yards. Then, on third-and-26, sophomore safety Tariq Carpenter intercepted a long pass.
“We blitzed like crazy tonight,” said Mitchell, the senior co-captain who recorded six tackles for the White, including a game-high five for behind the line of scrimmage. “[Defensive Coordinator Nate Woody] sent the linebackers a lot and we were doing a lot of slanting up front. So I think that helped us get some negative-yardage plays.”
“I think we played pretty fast, everybody knew what they were supposed to be doing and was making plays,” said sophomore linebacker Jaquan Henderson, who tallied five tackles and two TFL for the Blue. “Everybody out there knows what they’re supposed to be doing. Not a lot of thinking. That’s the main thing — guys out there are making plays and putting guys in position to make a play.”
The two defensive units combined for 14 TFLs — eight by the White and six by the Blue. Some of that was a result of the fierce attacking by the defense, some could be attributed to the juggling of the offensive lines. But there also was a third variable — the two-hand touch rule on the quarterbacks.
That rule proved to be something of a bone of contention for both teams on both sides of the ball.
“It is somewhat difficult. You don’t always agree with the referees,” said senior linebacker Tre’ Jackson, who recorded a game-high eight tackles for the Blue. “Ever since I’ve playing ball in middle school and in high school, every practice was live. it’s a little different, but at the same time we know why we’re doing it. Coach Johnson said at the end of the scrimmage, `The most positive thing was at the end of scrimmage everybody came out healthy.’ We’re working to get ready for the fall.”
“We’re getting on the edge and the linebacker thinks he got us,” said Lucas Johnson. “We like being live. We like playing football, getting downhill, getting roughed up. It’s different but it’s all good. We’re on the same team and we have the same goal.”
Coach Johnson understood both sides.
“It’s hard for both. It’s really frustrating,” he said. “The guy I think it affects more than anybody else — well, [aside from] TaQuon, when he plays — it really affects Tobias, because that’s his kind of niche. He’s quick and he’s a runner and a lot of times he’s doing what you’d ask him to do and the guy tags him because he’s taking the weak shoulder and getting downhill. But at the same time they get to go through spring without getting hit. So it’s a tradeoff for both sides.”
Oliver still rushed for 52 yards on 20 carries and threw for 43, including a 38-yard hookup with A-back Jarett Cole.
The kicking game looked very healthy, as sophomore punter Pressley Harvin III averaged better than 42 yards per punt and sophomore kicker Brenton King made all six of his kicks — five extra points and a 40-yard field goal, which sailed through the uprights with plenty of room to spare.
“Brenton had a good scrimmage,” Paul Johnson said. “It was good for his confidence.”
With the spring successfully concluded, it’s back to work for Johnson and his staff.
“I always meet with each player after spring and talk to them,” he said. “We’ll knock that out on Monday then give them a little time off and you’re right back into it. You’re always into recruiting. [Coaches] are back on the road on Monday.
“We got a lot of work in. We got a lot of play in and evaluating, so I think it was a good spring,” he added. “I don’t ever get too up or too down in the spring. We’ll see. Ask me after three games. I’ll have a pretty good idea [then].”
Mitchell feels the defense has a good idea about the new scheme and is excited about getting an even firmer grasp on preparing for fall.
“It’s growing more and more every day,” he said. “The more that I learn, what all is going on around me and learning the defense and learning why we’re doing what we’re doing, my comfort level increases. There’s definitely going to be some meetings and film study throughout the summer and that’s just going to help us keep one foot in front of the other and keep progressing towards our goal.”