With one meager fumble Saturday — and that on a punt return, and possession was retained — Georgia Tech was not quite ready to declare its fumbling problems a thing of the past.
“I’m always careful to compliment that,” quarterbacks and B-backs coach Bryan Cook said. “I knock on wood.”
Said coach Paul Johnson, “I wouldn’t try to reach too many conclusions on one game about a whole lot of anything.”
Tech would well hope that it will be better at clutching the ball than in years past. Since Johnson’s arrival in 2008, the Yellow Jackets have lost their grasp of the ball more than any FBS team in the country. Between 2008 and last season, the Jackets fumbled 197 times over that 80-game span. According to statistics at cfbstats.com, that’s the most of any FBS team, surpassing Nebraska by one. The Jackets had 28 last season, tied for eighth most in the country.
That’s an average of 2.5 fumbles per game. Tech lost 87 of them, an average of 1.1 per game. For a team that typically has been effective when holding onto the ball and that continually plays with a thin margin for error, the fumble total represents a considerable loss of opportunity.
“The big thing is that you just want to minimize them,” A-backs coach Lamar Owens said. “You don’t want to have over 25 (turnovers per season). You can’t survive having two turnovers a game.”
Indeed, one game, particularly against an FCS opponent in Wofford, is not an instructive sample. However, it was noteworthy that the Jackets’ offense made it through their second scrimmage, a session of about 110 plays, with no turnovers.
“I don’t think the ball was on the ground but maybe once,” Johnson said after the scrimmage.
It was a departure from the typical Tech scrimmage, in which the shuffling of centers, quarterbacks and B-backs, combined with the ballhandling required in the option offense, typically result in multiple fumbles, often unforced.
“I’ve noticed (improved ball security) a lot,” linebacker Tyler Marcordes said. “I think they’re just focusing more on it.”
Johnson and other coaches said they have not taken a different approach to ball security this season.
“We’ve constantly coached ball security,” he said. “It’s nothing anything different. We’ve always made a big deal out of it.”
It is perhaps not a surprise that a team like Tech had the most fumbles between 2008 and 2013. The Jackets finished in the top three in rushing attempts in five of those six seasons, meaning more opportunities to fumble. Also, option plays require more ball-handling than a conventional offense. In a triple-option play, one of three players — the quarterback, B-back and A-back — may end up with the ball, increasing chances for a mishandled exchange.
For instance, Army, which runs a similar offense to Tech’s, had nearly as many fumbles, 187. However, Navy, whose scheme is also similar to Tech’s, fumbled 121 times. Johnson’s Navy teams had similar fumble numbers while he was there.
“The whole offense is built on a lot of people counting on other people to do their jobs,” B-back Zach Laskey said. “If I see one thing and (quarterback) Justin (Thomas) sees another, it could result in a fumble. But that’s why you do those things in the offseason and get the mesh down, so you don’t have those problems.”
Over the offseason and into the preseason, Tech players were diligent in their efforts to improve ballhandling, Laskey and center Freddie Burden said. In the summer, the B-backs worked with Thomas and backup Tim Byerly twice a week practicing the mesh — the point at which the quarterback places the ball in the B-backs and either hands the ball off or keeps it.
Thomas and Burden rehearsed the footwork of various plays after snaps — Burden stepping one direction and Thomas stepping the other — and take extra snaps at practice if they mess up. They have a goal of no fumbled exchanges this season.
“We can’t have any fumble,” Burden said. “That can lead to turnovers, and we can’t have any of those.”
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