‘Competition is king’ at Tech, even for quarterback

Georgia Tech quarterback James Graham throws a pass against Virginia Tech Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

This is the seventh installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia Tech’s spring football practice, which begins Tuesday. Today: Quarterbacks | Yesterday: Tight ends | Tomorrow: Wide receivers

QUARTERBACKS
Who's gone: Lucas Johnson (grad transfer)
Who's back: James Graham, Jordan Yates
Who's new: Tucker Gleason (early enrollee), Jeff Sims (early enrollee)
Projected starter: Graham

How Georgia Tech quarterbacks James Graham and Jordan Yates perform in spring practice will not definitively determine who will be the starter when the Yellow Jackets open the season against Clemson on Sept. 3. Following coach Geoff Collins’ dictum that “competition is king,” the competition between the two will be ongoing.

That said, their play this spring could go a long way in deciding that race. Most likely, coaches are hoping that by the time the Yellow Jackets play their spring game April 10 at Bobby Dodd Stadium, either Graham or Yates will have proved himself as the clearly better option to be the No. 1 quarterback.

Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude proved themselves willing to play multiple quarterbacks at the start of last season, as they divided snaps among Lucas Johnson, Tobias Oliver and James Graham. But when Graham seized the job, Collins and Patenaude stuck with him as starter over the final eight games of the season.

This spring, while Graham has the significant edge in playing experience from this past season, it appears that the competition between Graham and Yates will be wide open.

Both will bring sufficient physical tools to spring practice. Graham has a big arm, throws downfield with accuracy and is an elusive runner. Perhaps his best throw of the season was against Miami on Oct. 19. With the pocket collapsing, Graham stepped up to throw, releasing just as he was hit and dropping a pass 40 yards downfield at the front corner of the end zone for wide receiver Ahmarean Brown to catch it for a touchdown.

“I knew the play, the coverage that we practiced all week — that’s the coverage that we had for the play,” Graham said the week following the game. “And I knew it was going to be wide open, so I just gave him a shot downfield, and he made a play.”

Georgia Tech quarterback Jordan Yates (13) looks for assistance as he calls a play.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Yates’ arm might not have quite the pop as Graham’s, but he can deliver strikes. In his lone extended appearance, at the end of the Jackets’ 45-0 loss to Virginia Tech, Yates also showed elusiveness in the pocket, toughness as a runner and the ability to find the open man. His best pass actually might have been an incompletion on his last throw of the night.

On a fourth-and-7 from the Virginia Tech 41-yard line, Yates dropped back and had pass-rush pressure coming straight up the middle. His back foot touching the 50, Yates lofted a pass down the left sideline, getting jostled on the follow through by the rush.

The ball found receiver Pejé Harris in stride at the 12-yard line. However, Harris’ right arm was tangled with cornerback Armani Chatman’s left arm, leaving him to unsuccessfully try to secure the ball with just his left hand.

“This is a perfect throw from Yates,” Fox Sports South analyst Dave Archer marveled, watching the replay. “Look where this ball is — right on the money.”

For both, certainly, learning the offense in-depth and limiting mistakes will be paramount. For Graham, that process was evident in watching his play gradually improve over his eight starts. At the end of the season, Patenaude remarked that Graham’s maturation in understanding the preparation demands for the position “has been tremendous.” Still, Graham’s completed only 45.1% of his passes (87-for-193), the lowest rate of any ACC quarterback with at least 40 attempts.

For Yates, not having nearly as many game snaps will be a disadvantage, but Patenaude liked what he saw in practice, enough to want to find him playing time even as he was trying to give Graham as many snaps as he could.

“But Jordan has done a really good job, and he’s going to be a really special player,” Paenaude said in November. “He’s got tremendous instincts.”

Yates and Graham will be joined by early-enrollee freshmen Tucker Gleason and Jeff Sims.

Sims is a dual-threat quarterback. On his high-school highlight videos, he hit targets 50 yards downfield with a seemingly effortless motion and zipped balls down the seam. He also tucked the ball on read-option keepers and outran defensive backs.

Gleason, also a dual-threat quarterback, showed off a quick release and an accurate arm on his highlight videos. In his offense, he made a variety of throws — deep balls, slants, passes on the run to his left and right — and was a dangerous runner.

They’ll both be given a shot, but the competition likely will occur between Graham and Yates.

THE SERIES

• Monday: Special teams
• Tuesday: Defensive line
• Wednesday: Linebackers
• Thursday: Defensive backs
• Friday: Offensive line
• Saturday: Tight ends
• Today: Quarterbacks
• Monday: Wide receivers
• Tuesday: Running backs

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