For most, if not all, college football players, the jump from high-school ball is not insignificant. They’re no longer the biggest, strongest and fastest, but instead often back at the bottom of the food chain.
With the start of the season less than two weeks away, a new class of Georgia Tech freshmen may soon be encountering that reality, if they have not already.
Yellow Jackets players Parker Braun, Jaquan Henderson, TaQuon Marshall and Brant Mitchell shared their “welcome to college football” moments when they realized that they were indeed playing at a different level.
Parker Braun, guard
In Tech’s fourth game of the 2016 season, No. 5 Clemson came to Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Tigers starting defensive line included Carlos Watkins, who would be a fourth-round pick the following spring, and Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, all three of whom are projected to be first-round picks next spring.
Braun said he was shell-shocked by the experience.
“It was the caliber of athlete I hadn’t faced yet,” Braun said. “I hadn’t started at that point, so I was rotating in. It was intimidating.”
Braun said he was not able to adjust throughout the game, though he wasn’t alone. Tech gained 124 yards of total offense in the game, arguably the Jackets’ least effective offensive game in coach Paul Johnson’s tenure.
Braun said he was “kind of swimming the whole game. That game was just crazy. It was sort of hard to get my bearings.”
Two years later, Braun is ready for a third tangle with Clemson. Braun said he gained confidence last year, “and this year I look to go in and not just sort of get by, but actually dominate my opponent.”
JaQuan Henderson, linebacker
Henderson was on the kickoff coverage team that opened the 2017 season against Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game. He said it was a clear revelation about the size and strength of the competition.
“I didn’t get knocked down,” he said. But, “I tried to knock someone down, but they didn’t go down. So that made me want to work even harder. I’m ready now.”
TaQuon Marshall, quarterback
Marshall’s first season was 2015. Through his first two games, at home against Alcorn State and Tulane, he wasn’t overwhelmed.
Against Alcorn State, “I was like, Oh, OK, this isn’t bad,” Marshall said. “The speed isn’t too bad. Second game, Tulane, (I) scored my first touchdown. I’m like, OK this isn’t too bad, either.”
Then came the road trip to Notre Dame, whose lineup included two defensive players who earned All-America status that season, Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day.
“I got hit one time on the sideline, I said, ‘Yeah, this is college football,’” Marshall said. “I mean, the guys, for me being an 18-year-old kid playing against guys 20, 21, 22, I mean, they were huge. Huge. So that was kind of my wakeup like, Hey, this is college football.”
Brant Mitchell, linebacker
His eye-opening moment happened on the Tech practice fields.
“The triple option is one of the fastest-hitting offenses, as you know,” Mitchell said. “I’ve stated it several times. When it comes at you, you’d better get ready. You’d better get your eyes right and you’d better get adjusted to the speed of the game or you’re going to be turned to flip like I was my freshman year by an offensive lineman coming out to cut you.”
It was quite an awakening.
“When I got here, it wasn’t necessarily playing in a game that kind of made me realize I was in college football,” he said. “As soon as I got here, it’s like these are grown men out here, and they’re coming to get you.”