Georgia Tech’s improvement could be a breakthrough

Jordan Mason #27 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets runs with the ball against the Miami Hurricanes during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium on October 19, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Credit: Michael Reaves

Credit: Michael Reaves

Georgia Tech defensive tackle Ja’Quon Griffin’s performance against Miami on Saturday delighted his position coach, Larry Knight. Earlier in the season, Griffin had a smaller role on the defense and didn’t even get into the South Florida game.

But Griffin followed Knight’s instructions on how to improve to get more playing time, and his role increased. Against Miami, Griffin recovered a fumble in the end zone for Tech’s first touchdown and later pulled down quarterback N’Kosi Perry for his first career sack.

“So he’s playing a lot more and doing a lot of positive things on the field,” Knight said. “So, yeah, we’re definitely happy about it.”

The progress made by players like Griffin, a redshirt freshman, has encouraged Knight and formed the basis of his hope for Tech’s final five games of the regular season, and Knight is not alone in his optimism. The combination of Tech’s win over Miami, the open date to recuperate and prepare for Pittsburgh and the general progress made by players has provided a shot of morale for coach Geoff Collins’ team.

“I think we’re just growing globally, on defense and offense and special teams,” tight ends coach Chris Wiesehan said. “It’s just one day at a time.”

As an example, Tech’s run game showed progress against Miami, piling up 207 yards against a Hurricanes defense that had held five of its first six opponents under 100 rushing yards and allowed 153 in the sixth.

Led by running back Jordan Mason, Tech ran inside, outside, on options and with quarterback James Graham. It wasn’t perfect, but it was also the Jackets’ second consecutive game in which their rushing total was the opponent’s season high, following their 173-yard game against Duke.

“When you can enforce your will in the run game, like our line did and like the tight ends and everybody together with the running backs, you need to do those things,” Wiesehan said.

Wiesehan attributed some of the progress to the high volume of repetitions that players have accumulated in Tech’s fast-tempo practices.

“I think there’s clarity in repetition,” Wiesehan said. “And the more reps you get and the more you own those reps and understand those reps and understand the why of a play and what the defense is trying to do to defend it, that (clarity has) grown.”

On defense, Tech’s three sacks were the most against an ACC opponent since it had four against Duke last year in the seventh game of the season.

Knight saw that his defensive tackles were continuing to improve at how they used their hands in pass rush and keeping their eyes trained on their keys and not letting them wander to watch the quarterbacks.

“It takes awhile to break (that habit),” Knight said. “I’m used to it. I did the same thing. I didn’t break it until my senior year. And they’re doing it a lot faster than I did. It’s good.”

The Miami game was a breakthrough for Knight’s unit in seeing results from their work. Knight compared it with a dieter not losing weight, but resolving to stick with the plan until finally the pounds come off. Knight said he and other coaches have preached to players to stay the course.

“We never said it was going to be easy, we never said it was going to happen fast or right away,” Knight said. “Just keep it up and then, all of the sudden, boom, they see everything we’re preaching.”

Speaking Wednesday, Knight said that he was offering his players encouragement about their progress.

“I said, ‘If y’all cut on y’all’s spring (practice) film, y’all would throw up after watching yourselves now,’” Knight said. “That’s how much improvement happens, and they care so much. Every week, I don’t care what you say – offense, defense, special teams – if you watch us, we’ve gotten better every single week. And that’s exciting.”

Tech has now blocked a punt and a field-goal try in the past two games after none in the first five. Temple blocked five kicks last season, tied for fifth nationally.

“They get so tired of field-goal block (training),” Knight said. “They hate it. And then all of a sudden, you block one.”

In Collins’ first season at Temple, the Owls started 3-5 before finishing 4-1. Last season, Temple lost its first two games and then won eight of its last 10 regular-season games.

Knight was confident of continued improvement from his group, which could have a ripple effect.

“I try to tell them, ‘Hey, it starts with us, and then it permeates through the rest of the defense,” Knight said. “And if everybody is playing disciplined and on one page, we’ll make some good stuff happen.”

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