Leading into Georgia Tech’s season opener Monday night, coach Paul Johnson spoke about his comfort with the four quarterbacks on his depth chart. He was hopeful about B-back KirVonte Benson as a replacement for the dismissed Dedrick Mills, despite the fact that Benson had never played a snap at the position.
He struck a wait-and-see tone with the defense and had concerns about the kicking game.
Tech’s 42-41 double-overtime loss to Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at the opulent Mercedes-Benz Stadium was but eight percent of the total product that the Yellow Jackets will turn in after the Georgia game Nov. 25. It may prove an unreliable sample. But it looks like Johnson had a pretty good bead on his team.
Quarterback TaQuon Marshall was better than anyone could have reasonably hoped. Benson more than did the job. The defense ran hot, then cold. Special teams, in Johnson’s words, were “horrendous.”
Time will tell if Benson and Marshall can continue to bear out their coach’s confidence, and if the defense and kicking game can earn more of his trust.
“It’s been one game,” Johnson said. “We’ll see.”
During the preseason, Johnson touted that Marshall was improving on a daily basis. Last week, Johnson said that he was “worried a lot more about a zillion positions than I am quarterback.” Against the Volunteers, Marshall was dazzling, keeping the ball an astonishing 44 times on his way to 249 rushing yards, setting Tech and ACC records for rushing yards by a quarterback.
“He played his tail off,” Johnson said.
Before Monday, Johnson touted Benson’s speed, strength and skill set for the position. All that was left for him was to actually play. Against Tennessee, Benson ran 26 times for 124 yards. Nine of the carries picked up first downs or scored a touchdown.
Had Tech fans heeded Johnson’s urge for calm after Mills’ dismissal – Johnson said that he wouldn’t be going home to “get in a closet and shoot myself” – they might have succumbed to the feelings of impending doom that were communicated across social media.
On Monday, Benson was stopped behind the line of scrimmage just once and didn’t fumble, two of the most critical objectives for the position. He ran through contact. His 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was hard won – he slammed into Tennessee linebacker Daniel Bituli at the 1-yard line, giving up about 25 pounds in the collision, and then drove him back into the end zone.
“KirVonte played great,” Marshall said. “He took a lot of pressure off of me when he was running the ball. He was running guys over.”
Johnson had said in the preseason that he hoped the defense, with eight returning starters and six seniors in the starting lineup, could help carry a young offense. But a comment made Aug. 21 reflected uncertainty.
“Some days, they’ve been better than others,” he said.
That was about what happened Monday. The Jackets defense started out showing winning form, as Tennessee punted on its first four possessions. It gave the Tech offense and Marshall time to find their legs. In the first seven possessions, the seventh of which was the Volunteers’ first of the second half, Tennessee was 2-for-8 on third downs and had scored once, a touchdown on a short field. Among others, nickel back Lawrence Austin, safety A.J. Gray and linebacker Brant Mitchell stood up with difference-making plays.
But, that version of the Tech defense rarely showed itself after that. The Volunteers scored touchdowns on five of their final six possessions, including the two in overtime. The Jackets committed sins that have often doomed them – poor tackling, improper pursuit angles, failure to pressure the quarterback. Tech failed to register a sack or a turnover, when perhaps one of either might have made the difference in the game.
“We never created a negative play, so you never get them behind (schedule on down and distance),” Johnson said.
A shortage of big plays was among the chief failings of the Jackets’ defense last season, particularly through the first eight games.
“We came out in the first half, and we shut it down,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to keep the momentum going in the second half. Just got to learn how to finish.”
Johnson might have wished his worries about the kicking game were accurate. Last week, he said his concern with kickers Shawn Davis and Brenton King wasn’t so much as field goals and extra points, but kickoffs.
“Are these guys capable of kicking it into the end zone?” Johnson asked. “Yes. Will they? I don’t know.”
As it turned out, the field-goal part of it was also a problem, as Davis missed from 47 and 36 yards, the latter on the final play of regulation. Of his five kickoffs, only one made it into the end zone for a touchback, and that was helped by a penalty that moved up the kickoff spot by 15 yards. The other four kickoffs were returned to the Tennessee 40-, 45-, 28- and 39-yard lines.
Johnson said Tuesday that King and Davis will compete for the job this week in practice to play against Jacksonville State on Saturday.
It’s enough to warrant continued concern, but perhaps not enough to sound panic alarms. The remaining 92 percent of the season will provide more conclusive answers.