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5 things worth knowing about Georgia Tech-Alcorn State

After a 2017 season that was an onslaught of narrow defeats that spurred a turnover of the defensive coaching staff, Georgia Tech will initiate its plan to redeem itself Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Yellow Jackets will begin their season against Alcorn State, an FCS school in Mississippi, with a 12:30 p.m. kickoff.

Tech, picked to finish third in the ACC’s Coastal Division, has designs on a division championship and its first appearance in the conference title game since 2014.

Playing a clean game

After a preseason that seems to have largely met coach Paul Johnson’s exceeding expectations – he said Wednesday that the team was “really dialed in” in that day’s practice – the coach wants to see a continuation of that play against Alcorn State.

“To me, it’s no turnovers, no penalties, (effective) special teams – all those things that will lose you a game early in the season,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to go out there and take care of that and play with some fire and some enthusiasm. You spend an awful lot of time getting ready to play football, to play 12 games or 13 games or whatever you get. Well, you’d better enjoy it when you get out there. It doesn’t last long.”

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Tech typically has ranked among the least penalized teams in the country. Taking care of the ball on offense is always a challenge for the Jackets, who fumbled the ball 2.3 times per game last season, the fourth-highest rate in FBS last season. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall will take snaps from center Jahaziel Lee, who will be playing there for the first time after two seasons at offensive tackle.

First look at the 3-4 defense

Fans will get their first look at Tech’s defense under the direction of new defensive coordinator Nate Woody, hired from Appalachian State to replace Ted Roof after his departure for N.C. State. The words “fast” and “aggressive” have been used repeatedly to describe Woody’s defense, which averaged 19 interceptions and 35 sacks in his final three seasons at Appalachian State. Over the same time period at Tech, the Jackets’ average was nine interceptions and 16 sacks.

It has been well received by defensive players.

“I love it,” linebacker and captain Brant Mitchell said. “I’m able to fly around and run to the ball better than I have in the past. I’m really comfortable with it.”

As an FCS team, Alcorn State may not provide the most accurate barometer for the Jackets’ improvement, but the frequency with which Tech defensive linemen and linebackers can infiltrate the Braves backfield will merit observation.

Players to watch include Mitchell, linebacker David Curry and defensive ends Anree Saint-Amour and Desmond Branch. Alcorn State may try to test the Jackets’ secondary, a foursome comprised of a grad transfer, two sophomores and a redshirt freshman, none of whom have started a game for the Jackets.

Making plays on special teams

A major priority for the Jackets in spring practice and the preseason was improving its return games, both punt and kickoff. The Jackets’ punt-return game has been safe but not dangerous, with no return longer than 26 yards in the past two seasons. No other ACC team can make that unfortunate claim.

The kickoff-return team has likewise been muted, with five returns of 30 yards or more in the past two seasons, tied for fewest in the ACC over that span.

Freshman safety Juanyeh Thomas won both return jobs in the preseason, but may not be able to perform the duties against Alcorn State because of an ankle injury. Brad Stewart would take his place on punts and either Nathan Cottrell or Jaytlin Askew would field kickoffs. Having the right returner in place is part of the solution, but so is improving at blocking and setting up returns.

Tech’s kicking game also is under watch, as Shawn Davis emerged the winner of a three-way competition to take kickoffs and field goals, but Johnson said the situation is “fluid.” Davis is returning from an ACL tear that ended his season after five games.

A first test for passing game

On the list of things Tech fans are curious to see Saturday: Tech’s new Adidas uniforms, Buzz’s new Adidas sneakers, the new defense and quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s arm.

In his first season as a starter, Marshall began well – 53 percent completion rate, 8.9 yards per attempt, five touchdowns and no interceptions in 51 attempts in his first six games. The final five games, against largely stronger competition, was a different story – 25 percent completion rate, 7.2 yards per attempt, five touchdowns and five interceptions in 65 attempts.

“I still think I have some work to do, but I’ve definitely improved on it,” Marshall said.

The true test will be his play over the course of the season, but Saturday’s game could provide a look at parts of the game he’s worked on – staying in the pocket, throwing deep balls his receivers can run under, not overstriding on his release. Secure pass protection and better play from the wide receivers also are part of the equation. 

About Alcorn State

Alcorn State has won the East Division of the SWAC each of the past four seasons and is picked to win it again this season. A year ago, the Braves held their own against an FBS opponent, FIU, losing 17-10 on a last-minute touchdown drive.

The Braves’ top player might be running back P.J. Simmons, who was named the preseason SWAC offensive player of the year after rushing for 687 yards last season (8.6 yards per carry).

“I think they have a good system and they understand it,” Johnson said.

The coaching staff has a couple of names of note. Coach Fred McNair is the brother of the late Steve McNair, the NFL great. Like his brother, Fred McNair was a prolific quarterback at Alcorn State. McNair’s quarterbacks coach is Pat White, who was a two-time Big East player of the year at West Virginia.

Saturday’s game will be the second between the two schools following their meeting in the 2015 season opener. Tech cruised to a 69-6 win, a game that failed to be a window into either team. The Jackets ended the season 3-9, their worst record since 1994. The Braves went on to win the SWAC for the second year in a row.

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