Two-thirds of the way into coach Geoff Collins’ first season, the scoreboard continues to be a messaging device that doesn’t tell the story that he would like to share about the progress the Yellow Jackets are making. But it’s in the development of players like Jackson, even as Tech absorbs defeat, where he sees his team improving as players gain experience.
“This is where we are, and we will continue to get better throughout the games, throughout the weeks and definitely throughout the season,” Collins said.
Safety Juanyeh Thomas’ leaping interception off of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, on a deep ball to the sideline, was borne of the development that encourages Collins and his staff. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said that, against South Florida in the second game of the season, the Jackets faced the exact same play. Making his second career start after backing up Malik Rivera last season as a freshman, Thomas took the wrong angle to track down the ball, Thacker said. The pass was incomplete, “but it should have completely been an interception,” Thacker said.
Saturday, Thomas took the correct angle, trusted his instincts and came down with the ball, tearing in from center field to rob Pickett. It was a highlight play of probably the best game of his young career, complemented by a career-high eight tackles (all solo), including the first two tackles for loss in his career.
“A couple weeks ago, I tried to overdo stuff,” Thomas said Saturday. “And when you overdo stuff, you don’t make plays. So now, I’m just trying to do my job.”
Said Collins, “He’s gotten better every single week in our program and in what we do within our program.”
Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude was also witness to a modicum of in-game progress on his side of the ball against Pitt. Patenaude had lined up a set of plays to run on the first possession of the game, but the drive was short-circuited by a dropped pass and a failed pass protection. Tech punted after advancing the ball only 18 yards. Quarterback James Graham was unusually antsy from there forward, and the decision was made to replace Graham with Lucas Johnson.
At halftime, Patenaude and the offensive staff agreed that the plays were there to be made, and that the execution just had to be better.
“And so we went out there and made a concerted effort to go out there and just execute the things that were wired better, and we did that and had success with it,” Patenaude said.
Given that Tech didn’t score a touchdown in the second half, the success was hardly outrageous, but the drive in which Patenaude revisited the batch of plays from the opening drive was the one where Johnson led the offense from the Tech 32-yard line to inside the Pitt 5-yard line with a mix of run and pass plays. It was the possession, though, that ended with Johnson fumbling the ball away into the end zone, with Pitt returning the fumble 79 yards.
“We’ve got to finish that drive,” Patenaude said.
As Tech continues through a season that stands at 2-6 with a visit to Virginia upcoming (the Jackets were 16-point underdogs as of Wednesday), the games and snaps accumulate for a team for which more than 70 percent of the snaps are being played by freshmen and sophomores.
“So what happens is, cumulative reps of different looks over time produces success,” Collins said.