The score was 28-20 in Georgia Tech’s favor over Virginia with just under 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter. On a second-and-9 from the Tech 29, quarterback TaQuon Marshall dropped back to throw a play-action pass to A-back Qua Searcy, running a wheel route down the left sideline.
There were two problems with what happened next. Marshall hung the ball in the air, giving safety Quin Blanding time to break on the ball and intercept the pass. The second problem was that A-back Clinton Lynch ran wide open down the center of the field. An on-target pass to Lynch likely would have resulted in a 71-yard touchdown pass and a 35-20 lead.
“This guy (Lynch) wasn’t supposed to be open, but he was open,” Marshall said at the ACC Kickoff on Wednesday. “So I probably could have hit him early, and it probably would have been a 50-plus yard touchdown.”
Instead, Virginia turned the interception into a game-tying touchdown drive before winning 40-36 in November in Charlottesville, Va.
In Charlotte on Wednesday, both Marshall and coach Paul Johnson expressed hope for improvement out of the Tech passing game in the season to come. Marshall’s potential to improve on mistakes made in 2017 like the interception against UVA – one in which both his technique and decision making were at fault – stood as a significant reason why.
“If you’re expecting TaQuon to complete 60 percent of his throws, it’s not going to happen,” Johnson said. “But it’s the nature of what we do. If he can get closer to 50, he’ll be lethal, because we’re not throwing a lot of check downs. We don’t have to throw in third-and-4 like some teams. I think he can be efficient. If he just improves on the play-action part, his numbers are going to be way better.”
In his first season as a starter, Marshall had his moments as a passer, but the final numbers spelled out a pretty dismal season when putting the ball in the air. He was 43 for 116 (37.1 percent) for 927 yards with 10 touchdowns against five interceptions. As Johnson alluded, the completion percentage deserves some context. Given the frequency with which Tech quarterbacks throw deep, 50 percent is an acceptable completion rate. However, his completion rate was, by a hair, the lowest by a Tech quarterback in Johnson’s tenure.
It wasn’t Marshall alone at fault. Pass protection and route running could have been better, to say nothing of the weather in the Jackets’ soggy season. Staying out of third-and-long situations would have helped, too. Still, Marshall took accountability.
“Last year, I struggled a lot hitting some of the guys that were wide open, just throwing the ball in general,” Marshall said. “So that’s one of the main things that I’ve worked on this spring, and one of the things we’ve been working on a lot this summer.”
In passing drills with backs and receivers and in 7-on-7 competitions with the Tech defense this summer, Marshall said he has worked on his accuracy, ball placement and footwork.
“Where to put the ball, where I want the receivers to be, where they want the ball to be put, just all those little things we’ve been working on,” Marshall said.
He said he got in trouble when he rushed his feet last season. He also acknowledged that he sometimes left the pocket too early.
“I know I catch myself sometimes – if the first option isn’t there, I kind of peek at the second option, but don’t really think to throw it to him, and I go ahead and get outside the pocket because, of course, I’m really good with my legs,” Marshall said. “But I’m trying to stay in the pocket a little bit more.”
For a team that rarely wins going away, incremental improvement can be significant, as Marshall’s mistake against Virginia would attest. The Virginia loss was one of three that the Jackets suffered by four points or fewer, defeats that knocked Tech out of bowl eligibility for the second time in three years. It stands to figure that with a season’s worth of experience (Marshall had thrown one pass before last season), those decisions can be made more efficiently from the pocket.
Johnson informed media in Charlotte of two developments that are encouraging to Marshall. Center Kenny Cooper, who missed the end of spring practice with a foot injury, is expected back at some point in the first part of the season, and offensive tackle/center Andrew Marshall, who missed the 2017 season and spring practice with a foot injury, also is expected to play.
“I’m excited to have Andrew back,” Marshall said. “I know he’s really excited to be back. he hasn’t played in over a year now.”
Marshall won’t have go-to receiver Ricky Jeune, now with the Los Angeles Rams. He will have returning starter Brad Stewart and expected starter Jalen Camp.
“We have some receivers that we're going to put the ball in their hands and let them work and do what they're able to do,” Marshall said.
As is his nature, Johnson held back on predictions of greatness for Marshall. But, he has seen what he can do. In 2017, Marshall set a Tech single-season record for quarterbacks with 1,146 yards, needing only 11 games to pass Justin Thomas’ 2014 mark of 1,096. And, despite the flaws in his passing game, he threw a touchdown pass once every 11.6 attempts, a ratio no other starting quarterback in the ACC could match last season.
“We’ll see,” Johnson said. “He’s worked hard. He had a good spring. He’s worked hared this summer. I see no reason that he can’t do it. I mean, he’s got the ability and the skill level. We’ve just got to do it on the field.”
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