By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
This is a little bit like the night before Christmas at Georgia Tech, where the Yellow Jackets and fans alike surely would enjoy a repeat performance when Alcorn State visits Bobby Dodd Stadium.
When last they met, the Jackets put a 69-6 TKO on the Braves to open the 2015 season and everybody felt swell downtown, as there were great gifts all around.
The scene is again set on The Flats.
“Yellow Jacket Alley” (Brittain Dr.) is all painted up, there’s a fancy new video board outside the north end of Bobby Dodd, the Wreckfest Tailgate is set to debut atop of Peters parking deck, there are more concessions stocked than ever and nerves are flared anew in anticipation.
“I’m pretty sure the butterflies are going to kick in on Saturday, and I’m a little bit calm at the same time . . . “ said senior defensive end Anree Saint-Amour. “You kind of get tired of seeing all the same guys every day [in practice]. It’s time to put all that aggression . . . into Saturday.”
Head coach Paul Johnson and the Jackets must also hope that their season opener doesn’t prove to be a weird sort of booby trap like the ‘15 game against Alcorn State that left so many so happy.
From that point on, Tech suffered so many injuries as to be almost uncountable and won just two of 11 remaining games.
Johnson is not seeking fancy gifts. Sure, he’ll take big plays, and a big score, too, yet against an FCS opponent that went on to win the SWAC title in 2015, he hopes more than anything for signs that his team will be more steady than it was three years ago, and, heck, last year.
“I want to win the game, and I’d like for our guys to go out and perform well,” he said this week. “We need to be better in all areas we’ve identified. Special teams is huge.”
“If we’re in a situation where we’re in a last drive before half, last drive of the game, I’d like to see improvement. Consistency, negative plays on defense, big plays on offense, just play a good football game, and then we’ll build on that.”
The Jackets were maddeningly inconsistent in ‘15 even after the blowout opener, and also last season, when they were particularly disjointed — on offense and defense — at the tail of halves and games.
They return experienced players aplenty, especially on offense and in the front seven of a defense that will roll out the 3-4 scheme of new defensive coordinator Nate Woody.
So, as with Christmas, there is some guessing going around.
With a 12:30 p.m. kickoff looming, let’s glimpse at Tech’s wish list and unwrap a few packages with questions and answers.
Question: What’s the No. 1 wish on Tech’s list?
Answer: To leave the game believing that the new defensive scheme will better enable Tech’s personnel, as the Jackets are undersized up front and newly athletic, young and bigger in the back.
Players have fairly raved about the new defensive approach, and the words aggressive, fast, and run have come up continuously when players have been asked for assessments.
“We blitz a lot more than we did before . . . “ said speedy sophomore Jaytlin Askew, who figures to join redshirt freshman Tre Swilling as starting cornerbacks. “It’s a little more zone than man-to-man.
“It just means we have a lot of blitzes that we throw in. You never know who’s going to be the one blitzing. It could be a corner. It could be a linebacker. We might man up on the outside and let everybody else go.
Q: What surprises may be in store, meaning which newcomers are most likely to flash onto the stage?
A: Based on the depth chart, that list would tilt to defense, where the secondary will be flushed with five new starters, including the “Stinger” position — a hybrid safety/linebacker spot.
Free safety Malik Rivera, a graduate transfer from Wofford, has repeatedly been mentioned for his brainpower. Sophomore strong safety Tariq Carpenter (6-feet-2, 218 pounds) is statuesque. Askew’s the fastest guy on the team. At Stinger, Jalen Johnson is 6-3, 215 and Christian Campbell goes 6-2, 208.
Based on history, somebody figures to come out of nowhere on offense. Think back. Justin Thomas. Marcus Marshall. Dedrick Mills. Parker Braun. TaQuon Marshall. Kirvonte Benson.
Q: So, who’s that mean on offense?
A: B-back Jordan Mason, who redshirted last year as a freshman, is expected to start as Benson will be suspended for the first quarter for a minor violation of team policy, and even backup B-back Jerry Howard, a sophomore. Perhaps even freshman B-back Christian Malloy will splash.
Freshman wideout Malachi Carter (6-3, 185), who set a slew of Gwinnett County receiving records at Mountain View High, will be the No. 1 receiver off the bench, while redshirt freshman tackle Zach Quinney will play, and may start.
Q: Will Tech take advantage of the new NCAA rule that allows student athletes to redshirt so long as they play in four or fewer games in a season?
A: Eh, maybe, sorta, kinda.
Johnson suggested that his plan will not be to suit up so many players as to clog the sideline, and that he won’t seek to play freshmen just to evaluate them in game action. Why? Because the Jackets might need help later in the season if the team suffers injuries to others.
“I’ve always told the coaches if you’ve got a guy that can help us win, he needs to play . . . ” the coach explained. “I don’t think you just let all the freshmen dress and say that’s one of our four games. I think you need to gradually think it out.”
Q: Will a lot of people play in this game?
A: If the Jackets take control of the game early, they will go deep into their roster. Even if Tech finds itself in a struggle, Johnson will shorten the roster churn at some position more than others.
The separation at some positions is so slight that multiple positions are just about guaranteed to be manned by multiple players almost from the jump. For example, there are eight and perhaps nine offensive linemen whom line coaches Mike Sewak and Ron West believe have earned playing time. It’s a lock that Braun, center Jahaziel Lee and tackle/guard Will Bryan are going to start, although it’s unclear where Bryan might be stationed (left or right tackle, right guard).
Brad Morgan, Quinney, Andrew Marshall, Bailey Ivemeyer and Jack DeFoor are also candidates for action, as well.
“TaQuon Marshall is the starter. He’s going to take most of the reps unless something happens,” Johnson said. “A lot of those other positions . . . the guy who’s listed as the backup may play more snaps than the guy who’s listed as a starter until they sort it out.”