What’s behind Tech’s improvement in pass protection

It was Jan. 4 of this year when Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson made something of a New Year’s declaration. His No. 1 priority going into spring practice would be to improve protection for quarterback Justin Thomas.

It was an understandable commitment. The Yellow Jackets’ pass protection was a disaster in 2015, rendering the passing game ineffective because Thomas as frequently was fleeing pass rushers and rarely had time to set and throw. Faulty across the board, Tech finished 95th in passing efficiency, falling 83 spots from 2014.

“You just watch it, and if it’s not very successful, you go, ‘Let’s try it a different way,’” Johnson said then. “It’s not like rocket science.”

Through eight games this season, the Jackets have proved that fixing the pass protection indeed was not unachievable. Particularly as he has heated up in the past three games, Thomas has thrown comfortably and confidently from pockets created by Tech’s linemen and backs.

“It helps a lot,” Thomas said, “especially when you know you can go through your coverages and you can read the defense without having somebody in your face. That helps a lot, just being able to release the ball without the pressure.”

Last season, often having to hurry or throw away passes, Thomas completed 41.7 percent of his 180 passes. He averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, throwing 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions.

This season, with more time to throw (and with more rapport with his targets), Thomas has completed 55.2 percent of his 105 pass attempts. He averages 9.8 yards attempt and has six touchdowns against one interception, on a desperation fourth-down throw against Miami.

Curiously, Tech has given up sacks at a considerably higher rate than last season. Opponents sacked Tech quarterbacks 15 times on 192 pass attempts last year (one sack per 12.8 attempts) and have pushed it up to 14 sacks on 110 attempts (one sack per 7.9 attempts).

Tech’s loss to Miami this season turned on a pass-protection breakdown that caused the sack and forced fumble of Thomas that the Hurricanes returned for a touchdown. Against Duke, Thomas’ scrambles of 46 and 50 yards dug Tech out of second-and-19 and third-and-17 holes created by sacks. Regardless, the time that Thomas consistently has had to throw speaks more loudly.

“I think it’s a lot better,” Thomas said. “Guys are on the same page more.”

There are multiple reasons for the improvement. After special-teams coordinator Ray Rychleski’s departure, Johnson hired a second offensive line coach, Ron West, returning to his preferred two-coach system for the line. That has helped improve play.

On pass plays, Johnson has called for more seven-man protections — the five-man line plus the B-back and an A-back. That protection typically is used on play-action passes, but Tech has run it even on standard dropback passes. B-back Dedrick Mills, though only a freshman, has proved a fairly dependable pass blocker. The line appears to be better coordinated. Thomas said he hears the offensive linemen making calls as they anticipate blitzes.

“So that’s just something that’s encouraging, and you can feel a lot more comfortable in the pocket,” he said.

North Carolina, Tech’s opponent Saturday, will give Tech’s protection another test. In the past three games, the Tar Heels limited the opposition to a 48 percent completion percentage and 4.7 yards per attempt. They sacked the quarterback once every 13.6 pass attempts in that stretch.

“It’s never fun turning around, seeing your quarterback on the ground,” said guard Will Bryan, who last year started six games as an offensive tackle. “You don’t want that to ever happen. That’s the thing you want to prevent more than anything else, so we’re working hard to not let that happen.”

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