Third in a series of stories looking at Georgia Tech coming out of spring practice:
A season ago, the Georgia Tech offense performed superlatively at times, less so at others. A unit replacing its quarterback, B-back and center, among others, the Tech offense still was rated the No. 23 most efficient offense by one metric of Football Outsiders, though the Yellow Jackets had difficulty against their tougher competition.
Tech returns 10 offensive players who started at least six games and almost made it through spring practice without a serious injury. With that, an educated guess at what the Tech two-deep depth chart on offense might look like. (Incoming freshmen were not included.)
WR Brad Stewart, Stephen Dolphus
WR Jalen Camp, Jair Hawkins-Anderson
Stewart and Camp seem both fairly entrenched in the starting spots. Dolphus has emerged as the No. 3, it seems. Adonicas Sanders and Hawkins-Anderson may compete for the No. 4 spot with two incoming freshmen, Peje’ Harris and Malachi Carter. It’s not at all unusual for freshmen to play in their first season on campus, as was the case with both Stewart and Camp.
LT Jahaziel Lee, Zach Quinney
LG Parker Braun, Charlie Clark
C Kenny Cooper, Scott Morgan
RG Will Bryan, Brad Morgan
RT Jake Stickler, Andrew Marshall
Lee is one of five players who have started at tackle, the others being Stickler, Marshall, Bryan and Bailey Ivemeyer. Lee, it bears mention, subbed for Cooper at center in the spring game after he suffered a lower-leg or foot injury. Cooper is slated to return by the time preseason training begins, but it’s obviously not certain.
Who will back up Cooper is unclear. Other options at center include Andrew Marshall and Chet Lagod, as Scott Morgan has apparently trained at guard, also.
Bryan has played both guard and tackle. One player of note not listed is sophomore offensive tackle Jack DeFoor, whose status is uncertain after transferring from Ole Miss, but it won’t be a surprise if he receives a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately. He could well be in the tackle rotation if so.
This will be a relatively young group. Only three of the 10 on this two-deep are seniors (Bryan, Stickler and Marshall).
QB TaQuon Marshall, Lucas Johnson
Marshall will try to build on his junior season, one in which he was 27-for-51 passing with five touchdown passes and zero interceptions in Tech’s first six games, but was 16-for-65 with five scoring passes and five interceptions in the Jackets’ final five games. (The schedule likely had a lot to do with the drop; all five of the Jackets’ final opponents were ranked in the top 35 in opponent passer rating.)
Paul Johnson has mentioned a desire to get the backup quarterback a series or two here and there to sub for Marshall, who took a pounding with 247 carries last season. In an ideal world for Tech, the Jackets would get far enough ahead in multiple games to give Lucas Johnson and fellow backup Tobias Oliver the chance to accumulate game experience, as this will be Marshall’s final season. The group will add freshman James Graham in the summer.
BB KirVonte Benson, Jerry Howard
AB Qua Searcy, Nathan Cottrell
AB Clinton Lynch, Omahri Jarrett
The pairing of Searcy and Lynch, both seniors, might be the most experienced that Tech will have fielded at the same time. The hope with Lynch is that he has regained his health and can recapture or even improve upon his highly productive play from his freshman and sophomore seasons. Searcy, the author of two of the more improbable and clutch plays from the 2016 season (his fourth-and-19 catch against Boston College in the season opener and his touchdown run against Georgia), also saw his productivity decline last season and is eager to finish his career on a high note.
A challenge for position coach Lamar Owens will be to get Searcy and Lynch’s replacements ready for 2019. He has had the luxury of having Lynch start since his freshman season and Searcy since he was a sophomore. Cottrell figures to take the baton, but he’ll need help from the likes of Jarrett, Xavier Gantt or possibly incoming freshmen Tijai Whatley or Dontae Smith.
To that end, redshirt freshman Jordan Ponchez-Mason and incoming freshman Christian Malloy are both possibilities. Both are capable of playing both B-back or A-back.
At B-back, Benson has the potential to put up some historic career numbers if he can start for three seasons. After gaining 1,053 yards as a sophomore, he’s on track (the dreaded “on pace to” statistic) to gain 3,000 yards for his career, which would make him only the sixth Tech running back in the modern era (1950 and forward) to hit that mark. It would be one of the more unlikely careers in recent history, given that a year ago, he seemed fated to backing up Dedrick Mills for three seasons.
Benson and Howard could make an effective combination, with Howard possessing a burst through the line. Howard will need to continue to improve his grasp of the offense and its requisite skills, such as pass blocking. Behind them are Ponchez-Mason and Malloy.
K Brenton King, Shawn Davis
King was 5-for-6 on field-goal attempts as a freshman after he replaced Davis following his ACL tear, though he did not have great range or distance on kickoffs. He made a 40-yarder in the spring game with plenty of room to spare, an encouraging sign. It’s possible that the groin injury he battled in the preseason kept him from playing to his full capacity. With a year to train with the strength-and-conditioning staff, it wouldn’t be a surprise if his range and distance were to improve.
Davis is on track to be back for the preseason, Johnson said.
Overall: Losing Ricky Jeune’s abilties as a pass catcher and run blocker is significant. However, with 10 players back who started at least six games, there’s no reason to think that this offense shouldn’t improve in 2018. The passing game has to improve overall – pass protection, throwing, route running, catching – but, again, a unit with so many returnees ought to do that.
The top three running backs are all back, and, in fact, Tech returns 90 percent of its rushing yardage from last season, a huge number. Consistency, both game-to-game and drive-to-drive, has to also get better.
It would stand to reason, also, that a new defensive scheme that has habitually created turnovers will help with field position and, in turn, scoring.
Series so far:
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.