What we know about Tech after three games

Georgia Tech gets its season started in earnest Saturday at Virginia Tech in both teams’ ACC opener. The Yellow Jackets have made it through their first three games unscathed on the scoreboard and almost so in the training room, although uneven performances in all three games leave cause for concern.

The team that will seek to end its four-game losing streak to the Hokies still faces plenty of questions after three games, but some things have become more apparent.

Concerns about defense are legitimate

The defense has shown what it can be, shutting out Tulane over the final 39 minutes and holding Georgia Southern to 10 points and 130 yards in the first half last Saturday. It suggests the unit has the potential to be a competitive group. However, opponents have done enough damage, like the Eagles’ 28 points and 398 yards after halftime, to confirmthe long way this young group has to go.

Pass rush, tackling and pursuit have been spotty. The team has given up four plays of 60 yards or more after giving up only two all last season. To a degree, it is the price for having to play several players with little or no college experience before this season, as well as for facing opponents with varying offensive schemes. Not that Virginia Tech is going to care.

“We’ve got to do what our kids can handle,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.

Justin Thomas will be a difference maker

There will likely be more bumps in the road before the season is over as the level of competition rises over the final nine regular-season games and defenses throw more curveballs and better athletes at him.

But quarterback Justin Thomas has conclusively demonstrated his potential to impact the offense with his speed and passing ability. Thomas already has three runs of 20 yards or more, tied for sixth in the country among quarterbacks. It’s also two more than 2013 starter Vad Lee collected over the entire season.

While streaky, he has shown an accurate arm. He completed seven consecutive passes against Georgia Southern before completing three of his next 15. He ended the game, of course, by evading a blitzing linebacker and hitting A-back Deon Hill for a game-winning 13-yard touchdown pass.

Youth and inexperience are factors

The impact of new starters and freshmen across the lineup revealed itself in the unimpressive first halves the team played against Wofford and Tulane and then the dreadful second half that it offered up against Georgia Southern. Thomas had a hand in three turnovers against Tulane. Against Georgia Southern, the defense didn’t respond well after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against linebacker Paul Davis gave the Eagles a drive-extending first down.

There are undoubtedly more hard lessons to be learned before the season, perhaps as early as Saturday, when the Jackets venture to the Hokies’ Lane Stadium, one of the two loudest stadiums in the ACC. The question is how quickly they can apply them.

Special teams can be a weapon

With 14 touchbacks on 19 kickoffs, kicker Harrison Butker ranks 10th in the country in touchback percentage, but is 2-for-4 on field goals. Punter Ryan Rodwell put four of his five punts inside the 20 against Georgia Southern. The Jackets have blocked an extra point and a punt.

The return of Jamal Golden from season-ending shoulder surgery has not given the expected lift to kickoff returns yet. Of Tech’s 12 kickoff returns that weren’t touchbacks, only two have reached the 30-yard line. Blocking on the returns needs to improve.

The material is there for the unit to win a game for the Jackets. The execution has been hit and miss.

“Average,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Need more out of the return game, for sure.”

Picture is still unclear

The good news for Tech is that it’s 3-0 despite not playing anywhere near its best. The bad news is that the Jackets didn’t always impress against what may be the three weakest teams on the schedule. Tech is one of only 23 FBS teams at 3-0, but the Jackets have done so against a schedule ranked 160th in Division I by the Sagarin ratings.

At its best, Tech has looked highly efficient and potent on offense and more than capable on defense. But the Jackets have also bogged down on offense and been shredded on defense. The picture is less fuzzy than three weeks ago, but the truth about this team is still to be determined.