No one appeared to suffer serious injury and the evening was pleasant. For those reasons, Georgia Tech’s spring game Friday night went into the books as a success.
The gold team, comprised of the second-team offense and the first-team defense, won 21-16 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in a scrimmage characterized by intermittent offense with both defenses generally controlling play.
A key component of Tech’s hopes for the 2017 season, quarterback Matthew Jordan, watched from the sideline with his right foot bandaged after a foot injury two weeks ago. He’s expected back for the fall. In his stead, quarterbacks TaQuon Marshall, Jay Jones, Lucas Johnson and Chase Martenson had their moments, but were shaky at others.
“I think we had a good spring practice,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I don’t get too hung up on the (spring) game, but I think all in all, we got better at some things. We’ve got a lot of things to work on.”
Wide receiver Brad Stewart, guard Will Bryan and linebacker David Curry were among those to leave the game with injuries. Johnson called it “the dangedest thing I’ve ever seen.” None appeared serious.
Five observations from the 105-play scrimmage, played before an estimated 7,500 fans on a dry evening that broke the string of inclement Friday nights for previous spring games:
Quarterbacks OK, not great
Running the first-team offense, Marshall wasn’t a standout, but showed some proficiency. He led five first-half possessions that produced three field goals. On the last, a 13-play, 52-yard drive that began with 2:35 in the half, he overcame a sack on the opening play of the drive by picking up 19 yards on a keeper on the next play. He made on-target passes to wide receiver Jalen Camp for 14 yards on a second-and-10 and for 13 yards on a second-and-8.
“It was great,” Marshall said. “Got to get out in front of the fans a little bit. It wasn’t like a regular scrimmage. I got to see what it is going to be like in a game atmosphere a little bit.”
The redshirt freshman quarterbacks, Jones and Johnson, showed clear playmaking ability. Johnson scored on a 70-yard keeper on the gold team’s second play from scrimmage while Jones, playing four days after tweaking his ankle, had an electrifying 56-yard run. However, both fumbled and took ill-advised risks to try to save plays.
“They redshirted all year, and it’s the first time they’ve played in front of a crowd,” Johnson said. “I thought Lucas handled it really well. He just kind of plays and doesn’t let much bother him. The biggest issue with Jay (Friday night) was the ball security. The thing was all over the place and he’d been doing a better job of that.”
For the first-team defense, gold-team defensive tackle Desmond Branch was disruptive, frequently penetrating the white-team backfield to hurry the quarterback or stop plays behind the line of scrimmage. Branch is competing for a starting job and, as a converted defensive end, brings some quickness to the interior.
Defensive end Antonio Simmons, who appears to have added weight since the end of last season, was also impactful, creating havoc off the edge and coming up with three tackles for loss. While some of the gold-team defense’s success was aided by busted plays by the white-team offense, the unit came up with nine tackles for loss in 58 plays by the white-team offense. That led to a 3-for-12 effort on third downs.
“That’s one thing we’ve been working on as a defense, bringing energy to the game,” said linebacker Brant Mitchell, who had seven tackles, 2 1/2 for loss. “We get guys to the ball, plays happen. Big plays and turnovers happen. That’s what we’re going to continue to focus on doing.”
How the game was won
The game-winning touchdown was scored by walk-on B-back Brady Swilling on a 61-yard touchdown pass from Martenson, also a walk-on, with 1:32 to play in the game. Swilling leaked out of the backfield on a fake toss and was wide open downfield for the pass before fighting his way into the end zone to give the gold team a 21-16 lead.
“When it was coming to me, really the only thing I was thinking of was, if I drop this, there’s no living that down,” Swilling said.
Swilling, a senior, has been a behind-the-scenes player who began as a quarterback and moved to B-back in 2015 to help with depth. It was a fun moment to stand out momentarily in front of his team and fans.
“I was going in there, trying to fill up whatever hole I needed to in the offense, fit in wherever I can, and finally got a little lucky,” Swilling said.
The lead held up against the white team’s desperation drive, which ended with safety A.J. Gray intercepting Jones on a throw into the end zone.
B-back backup race still undecided
Starting B-back Dedrick Mills got only a couple of series of action, with Johnson knowing full well his capacity. Most of the B-back snaps were given to KirVonte Benson (white team) and Quaide Weimerskirch (gold team), who are competing to be Mills’ backup.
Benson flashed with a 35-yard run in the first quarter and then a five-yard touchdown run for the white team’s first touchdown, late in the third quarter. Weimerskirch, running behind the second-team offensive line, didn’t have much room to run, but finished with seven carries for 26 yards.
Johnson said that, if he had to pick, he’d tab Benson “2A” and Weimerskirch “2B.”
“They bring different things to the equation, but KirVonte’s had a good spring,” Johnson said. “Quaide did some nice things. He had a couple of nice runs. Sometimes, there wasn’t a lot of room for him with that crowd.”
Impressive kicking performance
It looks like there’ll be a preseason competition to be the successor to kicker Harrison Butker, the school’s all-time leading scorer. Shawn Davis, a sophomore walk-on, was 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts from 38, 35 and 33 yards. Davis has been the first-team kicker this spring as he awaits the arrival of Brenton King, an incoming scholarship freshman from Mill Creek High.
“It felt good to get back in a game atmosphere,” Davis said. “I haven’t done that much the past couple years. It felt like this spring, I had something to capitalize (on), just pretty much being here by myself, so just throughout the spring, just trying to show the coaches I can be the guy.”
Davis took one kickoff last season, a touchback against Mercer. He said his range on field goals is 52 or 53 yards. He has been putting kickoffs this spring between the goal line and two and three yards deep into the end zone, he said.
“I think Shawn’s done a good job this spring,” Johnson said. “Certainly, he’ll be in position to compete with King when he comes in. We’ll let ’em compete in the fall and see what happens.”