It was the season opener, it was the ACC Network’s first-ever game and it was, among other things, a 142-play data set for Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins.
The 30 practices that Collins and his staff had in the spring and the preseason to teach and train the Yellow Jackets did provide enough time to lay a foundation for his tenure, now underway after Tech’s 52-14 loss to No. 1 Clemson on Thursday night at Memorial Stadium.
It did not give the Tech coaches an exhaustive understanding of their players and their capabilities. Collins made that point repeatedly late Thursday night when he spoke with media.
“It’s going to continue to get better and (we’re) just figuring out in the short term exactly what they do really well, letting them do those things on college football Saturdays or Thursday nights,” Collins said. “But you’re going to watch us every week get better and better.”
The loss to the Tigers, however resounding, still gave them a trove of plays to study as they begin to prepare for their home opener Sept. 7 against South Florida. Collins used all three scholarship quarterbacks, starting Tobias Oliver and then playing Lucas Johnson and James Graham.
Likewise, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker sent a steady flow of backups into the game to give them game experience and see how they handled themselves against an actual opponent. With Oliver, Tech mainly stuck to the ground game. In Johnson’s one series, he threw twice, both incomplete. For Graham’s 15 plays, it was some of both.
“I thought we had the quarterback run game early,” Collins said. “You cannot have negative plays against a really good defense, but we did. (We’ve got to) just keep finding out what we can do and what we can do well as we keep going forward.”
While coaches have seen far more of all three in practice, Graham was the most effective passer of the three, completing four of seven passes for 72 yards, including completions of 28 and 34 yards. Graham, a redshirt freshman who lost his academic eligibility after last fall semester but then worked to regain it in the spring and summer, is chasing after the starting job.
“Coming up, I’ve always been a dual-threat (quarterback),” he said. “I can run it, throw it. I’m just not known throughout the world, so I’m just going to wake everybody up pretty soon.”
Among the 64 players who had playing time, 20 freshmen, including 11 redshirts, played. Freshman slot receiver Ahmarean Brown was in the starting lineup and scored on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Graham.
“Those things give you hope, and we’re just going to keep building and keep growing and staying together,” Collins said.
Collins was not dwelling hard on the loss when he addressed media. He raved about his team’s effort.
“I was just going in here hoping we would play really, really hard, play together and compete,” he said. “I think we did that. There’s some learning experiences (obviously), that we will take away from this and we’ll work on that as we go forward throughout the weekend and get ready for next week.”
The process of fitting the pieces together and finding the plays that they execute best might take the entire season and beyond. Playing against more opponents and more schemes will provide more experience and understanding of strengths and weaknesses.
At the same time, there are mistakes to fix. Collins liked his team’s tackling, but he acknowledged that Clemson had taken advantage of the defensive line and linebackers not staying in their assigned gaps. There had been plays on offense, but two lost fumbles and an interception were too many.
“I think the way they stuck together and the way they kept fighting, that’s something that’s very important to us as we keep moving forward,” Collins said. “And if you have that, you’re going to have a team that continues to get better.”