On an ideal spring evening in Midtown, Georgia Tech fans got their first look at the Geoff Collins tenure, and they didn’t need to wait long to see the look of the Yellow Jackets’ future.
On the first play of the team’s spring game, the offense lined up in the familiar spread-option look of former coach Paul Johnson’s offense, only to dramatically shift into a five-wide, shotgun set.
“A little homage to the past on the first play,” Collins said.
It delighted the Jackets fans who had gathered in Bobby Dodd Stadium to witness the inauguration of the next chapter in Tech football, and their cheers only grew when quarterback Lucas Johnson completed a pass to tight end Tyler Cooksey. The last time a pass was completed to a Tech tight end (Johnson’s offense didn’t use one) was in 2007, when Cooksey was 11.
“It was awesome,” Lucas Johnson said. “I feel like everybody was really excited.”
In the scrimmage, both teams threw 48 passes out of 105 total plays. The Gold-team offense (first string) drove for touchdowns on four of their first five possessions, fairly handling a White-team defense (also first string) that had its play-call options reduced by Collins in an attempt to generate yards and points.
“Let’s be honest – people want to come to a spring game and they want to see some points,” Collins said. “They want to see the ball being moved. And, obviously, for a defensive guy all my career, that’s a tough pill to swallow at times. But I’m the head coach, so we’re going to have a little fun.”
Beyond that, there were signs everywhere of a team bearing Collins’ stamp. The student assistants waving “Money Down” signs on every third down. A variety of personnel groupings on offense. Collins placing a one-night ban on excessive celebration penalties because, he said, he wanted players to enjoy the moment. Offensive tackle Zach Quinney and other linemen exercised their liberties, spiking the football after touchdowns.
“Obviously, when we’re in big-time ACC games, we’re going to be composed, but just the having-fun element, I wanted our fan base to feel the energy, the excitement that these young men do every single day,” Collins said.
There was more. A fan calling a play on the first play of the second quarter (a reverse that gained seven yards). Both the Gold and White teams running a “bull in the ring” drill (two players lining up over each other and trying to drive the other back) at the end of warmups.
Every play run out of the shotgun. Wide receiver Jair Hawkins-Anderson playing snaps on offense and at cornerback on defense.
There was also a gadget play on a two-point conversion attempt and another one that was supposed to be a double pass from quarterback James Graham to Tech legend Joe Hamilton (who slipped onto the field behind the offense with the coaches and staff, who are often stationed there in scrimmages) to another legend, Calvin Johnson. Alas, defenders rallied to the ball, preventing a connection between the Tech all-timers.
Collins offered his regrets that “the defensive players weren’t feeling my trickery. They end up sacking Joe Hamilton, which wasn’t something that happened a lot when Joe played here.”
If nothing else, the 21,194 in attendance (setting a spring-game record) were presumably entertained.
White-team linebacker David Curry, his side of the ball shackled, not quite as much.
“I wanted to blitz,” he said. “I wanted to get some sacks, because that’s what I’ve done all spring.”
As for the play on the field, Johnson distinguished himself, completing 12 of 16 passes, one a 4-yard strike to early-enrollee freshman receiver Ahmarean Brown, though they gained only 87 yards. It was a good night for Johnson, who missed all of last season after suffering a foot injury in the preseason.
“It just felt so good to be out there again, just throwing the ball around and just playing with my friends,” he said. “It made it worth it.”
Wide receiver Adonicas Sanders caught passes on consecutive plays in the first quarter from James Graham totaling 54 yards, including a 39-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass down the east sideline. Defensive end Jordan Domineck was effective in applying pass-rush pressure.
“He’s a tough guy,” Graham said of Sanders. “He can make unbelievable catches. He can go up and get the ball. He can run out and dive and get the ball. It’s just a great option to go to either way, no matter who’s on him.”
Curry led both teams with 10 tackles with one sack and an interception to thwart a two-point conversion try. (There was no placekicking Friday, and punter Pressley Harvin kicked only as part of an in-game diversion between series in which fans were brought onto the field to try to field his punts.)
The Gold team (first-team offense, second-team defense) defeated the White team (first-team defense, second-team offense) 30-20. The stakes were more than mere locker-room bragging rights. The losing team was to clean the detritus left behind by fans in the west stands.
“Obviously, Gold came to play,” Curry said. “They won, so I’m hurt right now. I’ve got to wake up (early), but that’s part of it. Everything about this team is competition, so winner and loser.”