The advice was spoken to Georgia Tech wide receiver Micheal Summers in the Georgia Tech indoor practice facility and in team video rooms. How he can get off the line faster. How Summers could come back to the ball more aggressively. How he can run his routes so he can more effectively connect with quarterback Justin Thomas.
“Just trying to work on bad habits,” Thomas said. “Small things, things that we worked on. I could tell we’ve made a major improvement since we started camp.”
The Jackets’ pursuit of the ACC championship doesn’t rest solely on Summers and the group of wide receivers. But if Summers and receivers such as Ricky Jeune, Antonio Messick and others can contribute consistently effective play, Tech’s chances increase considerably.
“You need somebody that can (make third-down catches) and hit some big plays for you and be consistent catching the ball,” Johnson said. “You’re usually going to get one-on-one coverage out there. You throw a stop route on third-and-6, you want somebody out there that can catch it.”
While the wide receiver position often seems like an afterthought in Tech’s run-heavy scheme, it probably isn’t a coincidence that the Yellow Jackets enjoyed their two best seasons under Johnson (2009 and 2014) when they benefited from outstanding wide receiver play. In those seasons, Demaryius Thomas (2009) and DeAndre Smelter (2014) contributed a wheelbarrow’s worth of critical receptions to keep their team’s seasons moving forward.
Given the losses of Smelter and Darren Waller (both NFL draftees) and the lack of experience returning, Johnson said the position was his biggest concern on the offense going into camp.
That likely was in part because Summers did not take hold of the position in the spring or show enough in his first two seasons. In those seasons, Summers play in 27 games, making 19 starts, and caught 17 passes for 256 yards. His longest reception last season in an offense that regularly creates big passing plays was a pedestrian 13-yard catch.
In comments after the first day of the preseason, though, he sounded like someone ready to elevate his standing.
Over the summer, “I feel like most of my gains came mentally, just being able to push through and just saying that enough is not really enough, and just getting that extra rep,” Summers said.
An inability to consistently make necessary plays has limited Summers’ role in the offense and, in the process, the offense as a whole.
If a slant route is called, “you run the slant,” wide receivers coach Buzz Preston said. “You’re there, make the catch.”
On-field awareness is another challenge. Preston laid out the scenario of a receiver being so intent on watching the snap of the ball that he fails to notice that the cornerback opposite him has pushed up in coverage, requiring a different maneuver to get off the line of scrimmage.
“The simple, rudimentary, basic things are what a good football player does, and then the great ones, because they do all those, they’re in position to make the great plays,” Preston said.
Thomas, in player-led offseason workouts with Summers and other Tech wide receivers, helped with Summers’ mastery of those basic elements, like going full speed off the line, reading defensive coverages and coming back to the ball.
“If things break down, improvise,” Summers said, relating Thomas’ coaching. “Don’t be so robotic. Just be free and play.”
It is an echo of an evaluation from Preston in the spring that Summers was highly critical of himself and that he just wanted Summers to learn to enjoy himself on the field and “just play.”
Summers said he has dealt with nerves while playing and was hopeful that his experience going into the season would help. He has the tools — speed, size and leaping ability. For Summers and the rest of the Jackets receivers, the hard part is next, seizing on the potential.
“That was a lot of our success last year, is we did those things,” Preston said. “This group of guys has to take that to that level or better, hopefully. If we do that, then we’ll enjoy probably where we’re going to be at the end of the whole journey.”
Johnson has said Summers and Jeune, a sophomore, are in the clear lead to start, though Johnson has had praise for freshman Brad Stewart.
“I think from last year to this point, I think they’ve stepped up a lot, just playing with more confidence,” Thomas said Saturday. “Especially these last few practices, they’ve been catching balls, getting open, things they weren’t doing in the past. Now, they know that they’re going to be the main two guys we have right now.”