When Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins watched the film of his team’s season opener at top-ranked Clemson, he actually saw things that brought a smile to his face and brought on thoughts of what can and will be.
“The three things that we talked about with the guys going into the game were ‘culture built on effort,’ so we wanted to see them play really, really hard; ‘competition is king’ around this program, so we wanted to see them compete at a high level against the No. 1 team in the country; and then whatever bad things or bad circumstances might happen to us, stay together, keep playing hard and playing for each other,” Collins said in his opening remarks of his Tuesday press conference. “I thought all three of those things they did really at a high level, so I was proud of them. Obviously, you don’t want to be satisfied with not winning football games because that’s what we’re trying to do every single week but the effort, the competitiveness, and them playing together and playing for each other was there throughout.”
Collins saw a different number than just the final score. For example, he saw the number 22.
“Twenty-two freshmen played in the game,” he said. “It was good to see the young guys out there playing, out there competing and doing those kinds of things.”
VIDEO: Geoff Collins weekly press conference (pre-USF)
Then there was 55 — the number of freshmen on the Tech roster, 28 of them true freshmen, many of whom saw action and made an impact.
“A young man that stands out is (corner) Kenan Johnson,” he said. “He got reps and did so well — even on some special teams plays. You might see him playing even more on special teams, even more on defense. (Linebacker) Demetrius Knight, (defensive end) Chico Bennett are two others that did a nice job when they got the opportunity to play, to contribute, to do a really nice job for us. (Tight End) Dylan Leonard, (TE) Dylan Deveney, (WR) Kalani Norris, (RB) Jamious Griffin — I’m sure there are more that were out there playing, competing, and earning more playing time.”
Offensive Coordinator Dave Patenaude also saw positives and shared Collins’ pride and optimism towards his unit.
“I was happy with a lot of the stuff we did,” said Patenaude. “We averaged 4.7 yards per play, which is, I want to say it was higher than 12 out of the 15 schools that they played last year. We had a couple of runners over 50 yards, had good explosive numbers. This was the defending national champion team, at their place, the first game of the year and the first game of our history. So I’m happy with a lot of the stuff that was on tape and will continue to build from it.”
Sophomore RB Jordan Mason ran for a team-high 72 yards — seemingly breaking as many tackles — and Sophomore QB Tobias Oliver added 56. Only Pittsburgh and Alabama boasted a pair of running backs topping 56 yards in the same game against the Tigers last season and only one running back averaged as much as Mason’s 5.6 yards per carry (Pitt’s Darrin Hall, 6.1 ypc).
There was the quality play from Tech’s three quarterbacks, sophomore Lucas Johnson, redshirt freshman James Graham, and Oliver, a group that had thrown 17 passes between them — only five teams in D-I had returning QBs throw fewer.
“Tobias was amazing running with the ball, then James came in in the second half and threw the ball around a little bit and made some nice plays,” said Patenaude. “The plan was if we got into a throwing situation that Lucas would go in because he can handle the protections the best. So it’s going to kind of be that week-to-week, figure out exactly who is the team that we’re playing.”
The QB targets were as lacking in experience as the guys throwing to them. Three true freshmen — Ahmarean Brown, Nazir Burnett and Kalani Norris — combined to play a whopping 60 snaps. Brown opened eyes with the way he blew through the Tigers secondary to catch a 28-yard TD from Graham — making him the first true freshman to catch a TD pass in his debut since Kerry Watkins caught a ball from Joe Hamilton on Sept. 4, 1999.
“Ahmarean Brown ran right by their starting free safety in the fourth quarter,” said Patenaude. “For so many of our guys, you have to continue to reiterate the fact that that was the first time [Georgia Tech has] run a pro-style attack in 12 years.”
VIDEO: Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude (pre-USF)
Patenaude pointed to explosive plays as a positive.
“We had good explosive numbers, which I think was in the top-five in the country,” he said of Tech’s 19.7 yards per completion, the third-highest total in NCAA Division I FBS last weekend.
On the defensive side, Thacker was proud of the pick and of his unit, which saw only three seniors of the 29 players get snaps on defense.
“It’s just where we are in the state of the roster and the program,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of reps on film.”
Though scaled back some, there were a lot of good things to see.
“We have to be complex but not complicated to our kids defensively,” Thacker said. “At the end of the day, we’re an effort-based defense. So the guys have got to be able to go out and execute, play fast. I’ve got to call plays to allow us to play fast and then find scheme to be able to take away their best offensive plays. South Florida will go fast as well. We’re expecting a hot environment in a middle-of-the-day game. So we’ve got to get as many guys ready as possible.”
Among those who stood out on film was Bennett, who finished with four tackles (all solo).
“He created negative plays. He got a TFL,” Thacker said. “He made a mistake then came back and created a TFL and tackled really tough humans that are really difficult to tackle.”
Junior Jaquan Henderson personified the effort Thacker wants.
“He plays hard. When you talk about how we identify ourselves as effort-based, he embodies that,” Thacker said. “He held up because he plays with technique, he plays fast. Every rep that he gets he improves. He gets better because he has a great attitude. I’m very pleased with him and where he’s going.”
The linebacker corps also made positive strides.
“What I saw was guys playing hard and not quitting, we did not find egregious loafs on film, which was the thing that we asked for from our group,” Thacker said. “We saw guys getting real experience. We saw Demetrius Knight, a true freshman, playing, we saw Charlie Thomas play his first reps at [inside] linebacker. We certainly had mistakes [but] I talk about egregious loafs, it was tough to find egregious missed tackles.”
VIDEO: Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker (pre-USF)
Unfortunately those few missed tackles hurt. The Jackets, while they had 62 plays in which Clemson gained fewer than three yards, the others proved devastating, including the 90-yard blast by Travis Etienne, who had 205 of Clemson’s 411 rushing yards.
“Explosives was the name of the game,” Thacker said. “They create explosives better than anybody in the country. A sprint draw for a 90-yard run, it was a leverage issue, it was a teachable and coachable thing for us.”
Thacker was as pleased with the defensive backfield.
“We did affect the quarterback and his passing completion percentage. We created two interceptions against an elite quarterback,” he said. “Obviously, Tre [Swilling] got the most shine and the most notoriety with the interception and the pass break-up. Jaytlin [Askew] had the experience to just go in there and play composed. He was solid and, also when you start to accumulate all the things he did on kickoffs, all the things he did on punt, as the punt gunner, you’re talking upward of 25 or 30 snaps for Jaytlin to add to our rotation.”
Collins was very pleased with special teams. That’s something that will be big Saturday against USF, especially as it cost Georgia Tech last year’s game against the Bulls.
“Kaleb Oliver made two huge tackles inside the 25 on kickoff coverage [against Clemson],” Collins said. “So that is an emphasis for us going forward and [USF’s] team speed and remembering what happened to us last year, obviously, increases and heightens the focus whenever we do the kickoff coverage unit.”
“Nathan Cottrell on special teams, he was the gunner on punt, he was our enforcer on the kickoff team, did a great job on [Josh] Blancato’s big pass, down the seam to the left,” he added. “Tre Swilling, played really well. I want to impress on everybody is how much special teams matters to us. He was the left tackle on kickoff return, every single one he was out there battling, even though the guy was booming it out of the end zone, Tre was out there competing on every single rep. I’m proud of those guys and how they worked.”
Patenaude was proud of the team’s poise.
“There was nobody there with big eyes,” said Patenaude, who admitted his eyes grew a little at first glance of the atmosphere in Death Valley. “Our guys weren’t intimidated. They all came out and played well. We came out, we went after them. We stayed together, there was no finger-pointing, there was no complaining, We just kept grinding it out. It’s about execution. If you execute well and you play fast and you play hard you’re going to have a chance to win.”
“There are things that we did well,” he said. “Obviously we’ve got to stop the run and we’ve got to be more aggressive in the interior. That’s what South Florida does best, so that’s what we’ll take away to start.
“I think that’s the last time we’ll face the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, in my opinion, in Trevor Lawrence,” he added, with a laugh. “It wasn’t that we didn’t attack or wasn’t that we weren’t aggressive. There weren’t moments that I could load the box up and bring six and seven and eight human beings because he would catch the ball and throw it really far to All-American 6-5 receivers. We did not create a sack, which is something that we have to improve upon.”
Collins is confident the Jackets can get those things sorted out for this weekend.
“There’s a lot of things to clean up,” he said. “We just need to play really clean football in all phases and not lose effort and not lose competitiveness and those kinds of things as we move forward.”