Georgia Tech will conclude spring practice Friday with its annual spring game, starting at 7 p.m. at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The primary objective for coach Paul Johnson will be to make it through the game with no injuries, but for fans (and media) who are getting their first glimpse of the 2018 Yellow Jackets, there is plenty to observe and glean.
The Jackets, coming off a disappointing 5-6 season in which they held double-digit leads in four of the losses, have a new look on defense and 10 offensive players back who started six games or more.
Here are five things to watch in the scrimmage:
1. What does the defense look like?
The biggest offseason change for Tech was the hire of defensive coordinator Nate Woody from Appalachian State, replacing Ted Roof, who brought his five-year tenure at his alma mater to a close by taking a co-defensive coordinator position at N.C. State.
Woody’s defense sounds much like what Johnson has wanted all along – a defense that is simple to learn, aggressive and fast. Friday will provide the first opportunity that the public will have to see how that group has shaped up in 14 spring-practice workouts. Johnson has been encouraged by what he has seen, and players have been excited about how they think the defense will play.
The defense prioritizes pressure and getting into the backfield.
“I think we’ll definitely have some more tackles for losses this season,” linebacker Brant Mitchell said. “With this defense, it’s just what comes with it. I can’t really go into what all is going to make it happen, but it’ll happen.”
2. Two stars on the rise?
Woody’s 3-4 defense is such that the two outside linebackers are positioned to produce tackles for loss and turnovers. Even before spring practice began, Woody picked out linebackers Victor Alexander and Jaquan Henderson as having the body type and skillset to fit into that role, and Woody has liked what he has seen from the two.
Henderson has speed and flexibility at the hips that could make him proficient at rushing the quarterback from the edge.
“I think he’s a guy that can get off blocks, and he can run and chase the football,” Woody said of Henderson.
Alexander, Woody said, “can turn speed into power in a heartbeat,” whether it’s beating offensive tackles around the edge or bull-rush linemen back into the quarterback.
3. How much has TaQuon Marshall’s throwing improved?
One of quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s biggest objectives for the spring was to improve his passing fundamentals, including taking the prescribed number of steps in his dropback and not striding too long as he stepped to throw. Marshall completed 37 percent of his passes last season and was 16-for-65 (25 percent) for 471 yards in Tech’s final five games (all against teams rated in the top 35 nationally in opponent passing efficiency and two played in heavy rain).
Marshall’s 7.2 yards-per-attempt rate in that span is remarkable considering his completion rate, and speaks to the potential he has if he can be a little more accurate.
Marshall also has raved about the pass protection that the line has provided him this spring, although Johnson said that probably four offensive linemen will not play, including center Kenny Cooper.
Marshall has been encouraged by his progress, as has A-back Qua Searcy.
“Especially deep balls,” Searcy said. “I feel like he’s gotten a lot better with ball placement.”
4. How is the kicking game?
Circumstances of the game will dictate how much kicker Brenton King gets to play (as well as punter Pressley Harvin), but coaches probably wouldn’t be disappointed if he were put in a spot to attempt a field goal from beyond 40 yards. King was 5-for-6 last season after he replaced Shawn Davis (following Davis’ ACL tear in the Miami game), but four of the makes were from 31 yards and inside. His long was from 42 yards, and his one miss was from 43 yards.
Field-goal tries Friday night likely won’t be against a live rush, but every rep can be helpful. Johnson said that “we haven’t done a whole lot” of field-goal kicking this spring. King will kick for both teams, and Harvin, named a freshman All-American last season, will punt for both.
Johnson said that Davis is on track to return for preseason practice in August.
5. Which young players are ready to contribute?
The spring game perhaps carries more meaning and import for younger players, who can receive extended playing time in a game environment for the first time in their careers. As always, there have been players who have emerged this spring as challengers for playing time next season.
On offense, they include A-back Omahri Jarrett, wide receiver Stephen Dolphus, A-back/B-back Jordan Ponchez-Mason, quarterback Lucas Johnson, guard Charlie Clark and offensive tackle Zach Quinney. That doesn’t include wide receiver Jalen Camp, the No. 3 receiver last year who also has impressed this spring. On defense, safety Tariq Carpenter, nose tackle Chris Martin and cornerbacks Ajani Kerr and Tre Swilling have caught teammates’ attention. (Safety Christian Campbell, while a junior, is another.) Two early-enrollee freshmen, linebackers Quez Jackson and Charlie Thomas, have taken advantage of their first spring practice to put themselves in position to play in the coming season.
“It’ll be real fun,” said Carpenter, who played special teams last season as a freshman. “It was just last year, I was in the stands watching. So now, I’ll be able to play. That’ll be real cool.”
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