At practice, Georgia Tech A-backs coach Lamar Owens trusts a couple tools to help teach his players to clutch dearly to the ball. One is the Fumble Pro, a football connected to a metal handle by a rope. As players carry the ball in the preferred “high and tight” style, Owens tugs on the handle to try to pull it out.
Another is a football covered by a synthetic sleeve that makes the ball more difficult to grip. Players carry the ball while the other A-backs take whacks at it to try to dislodge it. Even with an inexperienced group under his tutelage, Owens is counting on the lessons to pay dividends.
“To this offense, I would think it means everything for us to take care of the ball,” Owens said.
In the Yellow Jackets’ historic 2014 season, it undoubtedly did. After rating as one of the most slippery-handed teams in FBS in coach Paul Johnson’s first six seasons – the Jackets’ 197 fumbles (32.8 per season) between 2008-2013 were the most in the country – Tech strengthened its grip last season. With 20 fumbles, the Jackets put the ball on the ground once every 50 offensive snaps (which is not an entirely accurate ratio, as fumbles can occur on defensive and special-teams returns). It was a 44 percent reduction over the six-year rate under Johnson.
With one of the country’s most efficient offenses benefitting from more kicks at the can, as Johnson sometimes puts it, Tech won 11 games. The Jackets won three of them by one possession – Georgia Southern, Virginia Tech and Georgia. One more lost possession in any of the three – or even a fumbled snap or toss that was recovered but killed a drive – easily could have meant the game in each. A loss in any would have kept the Jackets out of the Orange Bowl.
“I think those guys just made a lot of good plays,” Owens said. “I think our quarterback is really good. The offensive line, those guys blocked well and the guys that were carrying the ball, they did a great job of being conscientious and taking care of the ball and not being sloppy with their ball security.”
There is reason for concern as the No. 16 Jackets, whose spread-option offense requires more ball-handling than most offenses, begin the season Thursday against Alcorn State. Thomas will be handing off to B-backs who have yet to play a live snap in the offense – graduate transfer Patrick Skov, first-year freshman Marcus Marshall and junior Marcus Allen. He’ll be pitching to A-backs who are mostly new or inexperienced. For good measure, he’ll be throwing to a set of wide receivers who are likewise largely green.
However, Tech had one turnover in about 110 plays in its first scrimmage and one lost fumble in its second scrimmage of about 100 plays.
“Judging the scrimmages, (ball security) has been O.K.,” Johnson said. “As soon as I say that, they’ll start flying everywhere.”
Backup quarterback Tim Byerly said that the B-backs have learned the mechanics of the triple-option play more quickly than anticipated. Further, having two experienced hands in Thomas and Byerly undoubtedly aids ball security.
“We know when to give it and when to pull it,” Thomas said. “A lot of the times, the fumbles, it’s because of indecisiveness. I think we’ve gotten better at that and just making a decision and just going with it.”
The challenge begins anew.
“This year’s team hasn’t done anything,” Owens said. “Last year’s team, those guys were really good at taking care of the ball. We have to do our own thing this year.”
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News