BLACKSBURG, VA - SEPTEMBER 27: Quarterback Quentin Harris #18 of the Duke Blue Devils rushes during a long touchdown run against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium on September 27, 2019 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Duke’s Quentin Harris a different type of challenge for Tech

Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker sees the progress despite what the win column looks like. Against North Carolina on Saturday, for instance, the Yellow Jackets totaled seven tackles for loss, which followed their total of nine against South Florida.

Somewhat arbitrary stat alert: Dating to the start of the 2015 season through 2018, the Jackets had a total of four games against FBS opponents with seven or more tackles for loss. With seven games to play this season, Tech could well match that total.

“We had a really good week of practice (last week),” Thacker said. “It didn’t pay off in a win last week, but it paid off in improvement as a team. You saw improvements in different spots. You still saw glaring issues.”

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While the spotlight this week has been trained on the Jackets’ third-down deficiencies, Thacker undoubtedly is trying to fix the run game, as well. Given extra snaps because of the Tar Heels’ many third-down conversions, North Carolina ran 46 times for 211 yards, the third time that an opponent has cleared the 200-yard mark in the Jackets’ five games. (Temple also came close, at 195 rushing yards.) The Jackets rank 127th of 130 FBS teams in rushing defense, at 245.8 yards per game.

Duke, Tech’s opponent Saturday, brings a rushing attack of a different stripe, as the Blue Devils’ leading rusher is quarterback Quentin Harris, who averages 68.4 rushing yards per game and has twice hit the 100-yard mark this season. Harris, whose dad played football at Georgia in the early 1980s, also has thrown efficiently, with a 64.6 completion percentage and an 11/4 touchdown/interception ratio.

He is enough of a concern that Thacker said he will specifically assign a player on the defense to spy him. His mobility is not unlike what Tech’s defense sees in practice with the likes of quarterback James Graham.

“Even when you have things fit perfectly, they can extend the play, so we have to be very conscious of it,” Thacker said. “He has a very good arm, he’s very good with the quick game and he has a deep ball as well.”

Duke has dabbled also with an offensive set that Tech knows well – two slotbacks outside the offensive tackles, two wide receivers, quarterback under center and a running back behind him – the standard formation that former coach Paul Johnson used to great effect in his 11 seasons leading the Jackets.

Given Tech’s struggles in defending the run and, further, that The Citadel enjoyed success with its option offense, it won’t be a surprise if the Jackets see some of it from Duke. If Harris runs a lot, Thacker plans to make him pay.

“He’s taken a bunch of cumulative blows going into six games of the season,” Thacker said. “We’ll look to take fair, legal shots at him and wear him down if they continue to run him.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe knows the risks involved.

“Yeah, I mean, we’ve got to be careful running him,” Cutcliffe said this week at a news conference in Durham, N.C. “You know, he gets hit a lot. And that’s not ideal.”

And if the Blue Devils try that option look, Tech linebacker David Curry said his defense will be ready.

“We already went against it this year,” said Curry, who ranks fifth in the ACC in tackles with nine tackles per game. “We’re very, very confident going into that. I’ll just say that. We’re very confident with Duke running that.”

As for the broader challenges in stopping the run – winning challenges at the point-of-attack, staying in gaps and keeping runs to the outside hemmed – the Jackets have to continue to improve. Tech’s young and heft-challenged line came up with plays on occasion against North Carolina, but often lost its one-on-one battles with the Tar Heels’ line, as was the case against Temple, also.

It’s why producing more turnovers is critical, as they can rescue a defense as vulnerable as the Jackets’ has been. Likewise, developing players such as defensive ends Kelton Dawson and Sylvain Yondjouen is necessary, both for this season and the future.

Thacker praised the attitude and ethic that he has seen in practice despite the record.

“You don’t see anyone practicing like the circumstances right now,” he said. “And as a coach, as a human being, as a man that’s responsible for young men, it’s all you can ask.”

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