5 things worth knowing about Georgia Tech-South Florida

Georgia Tech plays its first road game at USF in Tampa. (Noon, WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News)

Georgia Tech will attempt to reach 2-0 Saturday with a road game against South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

After breezing past Alcorn State 41-0 on Saturday, the Yellow Jackets should learn more about their capabilities against the Bulls, who finished last season in the AP top 25 with a 10-win season.

Test for Tech’s pass defense

Georgia Tech’s passing defense, both on the front and back ends, should get a healthy test. By percentage of sacks allowed per pass play, USF ranked 30th nationally last season and returns three starters on the offensive line. Quarterback Blake Barnett is a sturdy-looking pocket passer who can fire downfield shots with ease. The Bulls have playmakers on the perimeter, notably receiver Randall St. Felix.

Defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s unit had a successful debut against Alcorn State, but the Jackets weren’t challenged on deep balls, and the Braves’ talent level is nowhere near USF’s. Saturday will provide a better glimpse at the sort of pressure that Tech will be able to heat up on the quarterback with ends Anree Saint-Amour and Desmond Branch and Jack linebacker Victor Alexander. Likewise, young cornerbacks Tre Swilling and Jaytlin Askew will have challenging matchups on their hands. The same also goes for safeties Tariq Carpenter and Malik Rivera, both new starters who will have responsibilities helping out on downfield throws.

Better play from offensive line

Tech changed its offensive line starting five from the first game, promoting redshirt freshman Zach Quinney to starting left tackle, moving Will Bryan from left tackle to right guard and dropping starting right guard Brad Morgan to the second string. Coach Paul Johnson found flaws across the offense, but was particularly disappointed with the play of the offensive line, which is among the more experienced units on the team.

A challenge for the line will be to keep B-back KirVonte Benson going strong after he gained 75 yards against Alcorn State in two quarters of action.

A subtext to Saturday’s game: USF’s defensive coordinator is Brian Jean-Mary, who was linebackers coach at Tech 2004-09, a period including Johnson’s first two seasons. Johnson professed his respect for Jean-Mary this week.

“They’re going to do their thing and we’re going to do ours, and players will determine what happens,” Johnson said.

Level of competition increasing

USF shouldn’t be overlooked because of its membership in the American Athletic Conference. The Bulls are 5-3 in the past three years against power-conference teams. Their recruiting hasn’t been ranked too differently from Tech’s in recent years. Further, the Bulls are 17-3 at home in their past 20 games.

“If we don’t get better (from the Alcorn State game), we’ll be in trouble,” Johnson said.

It will be a much tougher test than what the Jackets experienced against Alcorn State. Not much should be read into Tech’s easy win over the Braves. Similarly lopsided wins over FCS opponents in recent seasons haven’t proven to be accurate barometers. Tech set an ACC record for margin of victory against Elon in 2013 (70-0) but finished the season 7-6. It might be worth noting that two of Tech’s less impressive FCS wins were in two of their better seasons in Johnson’s tenure, over Wofford in 2014 (38-19) and Mercer in 2016 (35-10).

More from special teams

Return specialist Juanyeh Thomas showed some flair and vision when a cutback on a punt return helped him pick up 25 yards against Alcorn State, but he also fielded another off two hops deep in his territory and nearly fumbled it. Johnson is high on Thomas, saying on his radio show that he has a chance to be a special player. The more experience he gets returning both punts and kickoffs, the better he likely will become.

Tech had two touchbacks out of seven kickoffs, and Alcorn State didn’t return a kickoff past its 25-yard line, but not all kickoffs were kicked in the right direction.

The Jackets will soon face opponents – if not Saturday – against whom they’ll need every advantage, including special teams. Improving on both kickoff and kickoff coverage and punt return (the punt team seems secure with punter Pressley Harvin) would be a useful outcome from the USF game.

Heat and humidity

The heat could be oppressive Saturday, and, as was often the case last season, the Jackets may have to deal with rain. On Thursday, the Saturday forecast for Tampa from the Weather Channel was a high of 90 degrees with 72 percent humidity and a chance of afternoon showers or thunderstorms. Chance of rain was 50 percent.

USF likely will try to further wear out the Jackets with its pace. Against Elon on Saturday, USF ran one play for every 19 seconds of game clock, a pace faster than the one set last season by North Carolina, a team known for its up-tempo play. In Tech’s opener, the Jackets trudged along at one play for every 33 seconds of game clock.

“If they’re making first downs and moving the ball, doing that, then the tempo can get to you,” Johnson said. “If they’re not stringing first downs together, not moving the ball, the tempo is not going to help them at all. (It’s) going to hurt them because their guys are going to be on the field a lot defensively.”

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