After 14 practices, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins’ first spring practice will conclude Friday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Spring games can often be afterthoughts, but the excitement that Collins has stirred among Yellow Jackets fans appears to have made the exhibition more of an event.
Collins’ two coordinators, Dave Patenaude (offense) and Andrew Thacker (defense), spoke Thursday after practice and gave previews of what to expect.
Here are five things to watch in the spring game, which begins at 7:29 p.m. (The game time is a nod to Tech’s season opener at defending national champion Clemson on Aug. 29.)
How do the quarterbacks look?
Junior Lucas Johnson has worked with the “A” group during spring practice. Patenaude said he has seen Johnson grow in his understanding of the new system, switching from an option attack to a drop-back pro passing attack, and where to go with the ball.
“It’s just making that adjustment to a drop-back pro style passing game, of understanding coverage, what the play is and where to go with the ball has been great with all the quarterbacks,” Patenaude said. “I think that’s where he has made the most strides.”
Other quarterbacks, notably redshirt freshman James Graham and walk-on Liam Byrne, have been getting reps with the “B” team. Tobias Oliver was the No. 2 quarterback last season, but he suffered an injury in the spring and is considered day to day.
Patenaude said all the quarterbacks have capable arms, and are working to understand the new offense. There have been moments in film review where they realize their mistakes, but he said they are on learning curve and improving.
“But the growth that they have made over the last five weeks has been amazing,” he said. "I’ve been really happy with them. Their leadership is really good, really positive guys, so I couldn’t be any happier with where we are.”
How much will the defense pressure?
Collins’ defense is known for its aggressive style. It's why Temple tied for 24th in the nation in sacks per game and tied for 17th in passes defended, a trait the new staff is working to instill at Tech.
Thacker said their emphasis is on a defense based on effort and leverage. Throughout the five weeks of spring practice, they have run many situational periods. In Thursday’s practice they had a blitz period, where Thacker said the defense was aggressive and created a number of negative plays.
Their Saturday scrimmages have been the moments where the personality of the defense has been seen. It’s all by design, Thacker said. The reasoning for paring back the playbook has allowed the defense to focus on the base calls and see who can tackle and make plays. Then they use Saturdays to build.
When the defense faces off against the offense in Tech’s spring game, the highly aggressive style might not be present as much. The focus will be on executing the easy, simple calls, which will limit Thacker to a handful of calls.
“And in full disclosure, that will be tomorrow night,” Thacker said. “Coach Collins, he’ll have a play call sheet, and we have to call those five calls.”
How is the offensive line depth?
A possible starting offensive line for the Jackets could be left tackle Zach Quinney, left guard Kenny Cooper, center Scott Morgan, right guard Jared Southers and right tackle Jack DeFoor. These five all have the opportunity to have an impact on the offense.
But there's not a lot of experience behind them.
Patenaude said he feels at the end of spring practice they will be able to evaluate and look at their depth of players “above the line.” That phrase is Collins' version of the depth chart, naming players who can go in and contribute.
“We would hope to have eight or nine,” Patenaude said. “I think that’s kind of where we are, that’s where we were in the past spots that we have been at.”
Senior offensive lineman Jahaziel Lee, who has also played on the defensive line this spring, is one of the players that can have a chance to play offense and defense in the spring game, Thacker said. He also said that wide receiver Jair Hawkins-Anderson, who can also play cornerback, may play on offense and defense in the spring game. The position flexibility allows players like Lee and Hawkins-Anderson to help the team at multiple positions.
The goal is to build as much depth as possible, so they are continuing to develop as many younger players as they can. It’s an area of focus across the offense, Patenaude said.
“If we can get half the team over the line, that’s what we want to do,” he said.
What's the atmosphere going to be like?
Patenaude said he is looking forward to the game-type atmosphere that a night spring game brings.
The hope is to set the Tech spring-game attendance record, which was set back in 2012 with 18,125 attendees. It’s also an opportunity for prospects, alumni and current players’ families to come watch.
“Having that sense of, hey it’s game day, it’s a little bit of a different feel, and when you’ve got guys out there and there is people in the stands, it’s just a different atmosphere,” Patenaude said. “That’s kind of the cool thing.”
Thacker is excited to let the players compete and learn from playing in a game-type atmosphere. It’s a time for the coaches to correct and offer constructive criticism in a high energy environment, but also allow the players to showcase their effort from spring practice and to have fun.
“And I’m sure coach Collins is — as you notice likes to think outside the box — so I’m sure there will be some ploys and I’m sure there will be some whatever people there, some celebrities,” Thacker said. “Im excited to see a bunch of the former players back. It should just be a high energy night, and some entertainment value.”
Bobby Ross, one of Tech’s national championship-winning coaches, is expected to attend. The team also had a surprise visitor to its Tuesday-morning practice, hip-hop star Jeezy.
Who's a player to watch?
Patenaude has seen big strides in all the position groups on offense. Throughout spring practice, he has seen a handful of players step up and stand out on offense.
He named Tyler Davis, the graduate transfer from Connecticut, as one of those players. Davis played in all 36 games over three seasons at UConn. Davis, however, is day-to-day after an injury suffered earlier in the spring.
“He brings a whole totally different dimension because he is a tight end that can run and catch,” Patenaude said. “And he’s tough in the box, so he can get in there and mix it up, he’s not afraid to mix it up. But it gives you a different dimensions as a pass receiving tight end.”
Patenaude also named early-enrollee freshman wide receiver Ahmarean Brown as a standout. His maturity level and understanding of the offense has set him apart. Brown is in his first semester of college, but Patenaude said he is out in practice running with the first team.
“He’s really, really fast, I mean he’s electric fast,” Patenaude said. “I don’t know if I’ve coached too many guys that run as fast as he does.”
-Staff writer Ken Sugiura contributed to this article.