What We Found Out, What We Suspect, What Worries Us

Sept. 2, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– It’d be silly to gush too much about Georgia Tech’s season-opening rout of Western Carolina because, well, the Catamounts are a Division I-AA (never mind that FCC or FBZ or whatever stuff) squad, and a poor one last season at that.

Likewise, it wouldn’t be quite right to over moan about mistakes. The score was 63-21, after all, and the Jackets on Thursday night came within sniffing distance of the school record for total yards (662 vs. 706 vs. The Citadel in 1948).

So let’s frame this around these categories: What we know, What worries us, and What-we-suspect-but-did-not-see-confirmed in Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Sure things

# The Jackets are among the nation’s passing leaders, which is no surprise because that’s the way head coach Paul Johnson rolls. They don’t call him “Coryell’s Clone” for nothing.

On a serious note, the passing game that rolled up 365 yards in the air – with a first-quarter total of 148 yards that surpassed every game total of last season – belongs in the What-we-suspect category, and we’ll get to that later. Just had to roll that one out. Dunno how many chances there will be, after all. Say this, unless Tevin Washington takes several steps backward, he looked far more comfortable throwing the football Thursday than at any time last year.

# This team has quicks on the offensive edges and in the secondary. Even with A-backs B.J. Bostic and Marcus Wright out of action, and taking into account the reality that WCU is under-talented, some Jackets can fly. We refer here to a variation of the Air Johnson attack.

# Tech laid some wood, and if this continues the Jackets may develop a reputation for hard knocks. There were quite a few blasts; linebackers Daniel Drummond and Brandon Watts, cornerback Rod Sweeting (times two), safeties Isaiah Johnson and Jemea Thomas all had big licks.

# Johnson wanted more points, and bad. Or, he wanted to work on the passing game. Or, both. Never mind the fact his alma mater’s team was across the way.

See the Jackets — with a 35-14 lead while approaching halftime — attempt passes on their final eight plays of the second quarter. One was a Washington-to-Roddy-Jones strike for a 26-yard touchdown and a 42-14 lead. Then, when Tech got the ball back with 35 seconds left, Washington tried four more. The Jackets moved into field goal position, and Johnson called timeout with 0:01 left on the clock.

Western coach Dennis Wagner countered by calling two timeouts to “ice” kicker Justin Moore. That, or he thought he might let Johnson know what he thought of matters. WCU won that battle, blocking the kick and returning it 69 yards for a touchdown.

# Inside linebacker Julian Burnett, is, as suggested here a couple weeks ago, uber. Uber-what? That’s TBD as many possibilities remain. He led all tacklers with 12 combined hits, and after leading Tech in tackles last season despite not starting until nearly the middle of the season, it should be clear that he knows what he’s doing, and possesses the speed and inclination to do it.

Things to fret about

Nothing hinted toward panic, but two bugaboos from last season showed up.

# Specials teams were, eh, not entirely special. No surprise, then, that Johnson used the phrase, “bone-headed,” in referencing these matters.

Freshman Zach Laskey was impressive on a couple punt returns, most of Moore’s kickoffs were solid, punter Sean Poole had a decent game (two punts, 40.5-yard average), and coverage on punts and kickoffs was no worse than average or maybe a little better than that.

But Laskey picked up a rolling punt that he was probably fortunate to hang onto, and defensive lineman Euclid Cummings made an inexplicable downfield effort at a WCU punt. That allowed the Catamounts to recover at Tech’s 4-yard line, setting up WCU’s first score.

Then, there was the blocked field goal; low kick, blown assignment. Johnson has said if there are problems with special teams, it’s his fault because the special teams adjustments that Tech has made from last season to this are his.

He was left holding the bag Thursday night, and this is not a reference to coaches and players walking out of the locker room each with a sack of Chik-Fil-A.

Johnson’s players hung him out on special teams last night. It didn’t look like schematic problems.

# Ball security. The Jackets put it on the ground six times, losing two. Enough said.

# Regarding injuries, who knows? Both Tech’s starting corners were dinged. Sweeting was injured late in the first half. He returned, but not for long. Louis Young hobbled off the field in the game’s final minute.

Preliminary evidence suggests …

# The pass protection is improved. Hey, it’s a small sample size (one game, against a peashooter), but the Jackets didn’t surrender a sack and Washington and Synjyn Days generally had time to throw whether from the pocket or on the move.

# The pass rush needs work. The Jackets had four sacks, but two were by linebackers and one of the others came in garbage time. Tech blitzed less as the game wore on, and the pass rush – or shortage thereof – over-reflected that. The Jackets registered three sacks in the first half, and one in the second – on the next-to-last play of the game, when third- and fourth-stringers were out there.

Tech does not appear deep up front, but it must be pointed out that nose tackle Logan Walls was a menace, and end Jason Peters was solid. When your nose tackle is your second-leading tackler (with seven), somebody was busting serious butt.

“Truthfully, I was disappointed in our pass rush,” Johnson said. “We have to win some one-on-ones on the line. You can’t blitz all the time.”

# Washington has moved closer to zen as a passer.

He looked so much more at home in the passing game it was like a different player was wearing No. 13. His footwork seemed improved, his pace was better, his accuracy improved and his sense of the rush was keen. It looked like there was a plan, he knew it, and came close to executing it far more often than last season.

“I just try to be cool, calm and collected in all situations,” he said. “A couple situations I got into last year . . . I think I got rattled and kind of got beside myself.”

# Wide receiver Stephen Hill can breathe again. The talented junior nearly played his way into an asylum last season, pressing to the point where he didn’t appear himself in a miserable autumn. With four receptions for 181 yards (51 more receiving yards than the Jackets had in a game last season) and some dramatically up-sized body language, this is a very good sign.

Tech must maintain a downfield threat for Johnson’s offense to hum, and even the coach suggests that this Tech team is likely to need to pass more than the past three. Hill, A-back Orwin Smith, and wideout Tyler Melton were big on the receiving end Thursday. “Focus,” Hill said. “It began in January [workouts, both physical and psychological].”

# Most players have an improved grasp of what coordinator Al Groh is looking for on defense. “We can process faster,” linebacker Jeremiah Attachou said. Faster processing means less time spent thinking and more reacting. Good stuff, that.

Think I’m crazy? Let me know at stingdaily@gmail.com.

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