Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets wide receiver Ahmarean Brown (10) returns a punt during the first half against the South Florida Bulls at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, Saturday, September 7, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

What offensive-line injuries could mean for Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude had plans to show off more of the Yellow Jackets passing game Saturday against South Florida. Patenaude had intentions for quarterback Lucas Johnson to be aggressive in throwing the ball downfield.

And then left guard Mikey Minihan and center Kenny Cooper both left the game with injuries before the first quarter was over.

“Sometimes you have the best-laid plans, and then you get into the game and those things that you think were going to be great aren’t working out, and some other things are,” Patenaude said Tuesday.

With Minihan and Cooper both out, Patenaude downshifted to a more conservative (read: run-heavy) plan to help elicit the Jackets’ 14-10 win over the Bulls. With the makeshift offensive line having some trouble against South Florida’s pass rush, including sophomore walk-on center William Lay playing in his first career game, Patenaude concentrated on a safer passing game.

“When you’re mixing and matching a bunch of guys like that, it’s difficult to get their feet on the ground early in the game,” Patenaude said. “I thought we settled down as we went.”

As the Jackets prepare for the third game of the season, at home Saturday against The Citadel, it’s not clear if either Minihan or Cooper can come back for the game. Asked Tuesday at his weekly news conference, coach Geoff Collins declined to provide an update on the status of either. If it’s long term, it does cloud the picture for the Jackets offense.

Collins and Patenaude praised Lay for his play, but he’s not as capable as Cooper (otherwise he would have been splitting time with him) and is short on experience. If Minihan, who was getting his first significant playing time in the first two games of the season, remains out, it likely means that offensive tackle Jack DeFoor will stay inside at left guard and Jahaziel Lee will play at left tackle.

Lee logging heavy time with the offensive line also would mean that he likely can’t help out much, if at all, at defensive tackle, as had been planned. As far as the play of the offense, it would mean decisions for Patenaude, based on how much the line can do.

“I thought our pass numbers were solid, our completions were solid, our efficiency was solid,” he said. “But we need to create more explosive plays in the pass game. That really starts up front with the protection.”

For however long Minihan and Cooper are out, it may slow the development of the offense if protection can’t allow the aggressive passing game that Patenaude would like to unfurl. Against South Florida, Johnson threw a series of short passes. His longest completion, an 11-yarder to tight end Tyler Davis, was a screen pass caught at the line of scrimmage. Backup quarterback James Graham did have one impressive deep pass, a 20-yard completion to slot receiver Ahmarean Brown on an in route.

All of Tech’s other 13 completions gained 11 yards or fewer.

Also, Johnson appears to need more time to acclimate. His last significant game action before the games against Clemson, when he played three snaps, and South Florida, which he started, was in 2015 in high school. Patenaude said that Johnson played well in spring practice and in the preseason, but still has catching up to do.

“The more you put in and the more looks that you get and the deeper and deeper you go into the catalog of all the things that you can run, I think it’s just a matter of guys getting caught up again and him really shaking the rust off and getting out there under game situations, getting tapped around a little bit,” Patenaude said.

Patenaude was nonetheless encouraged. He said that quarterbacks Tobias Oliver, Johnson and Graham all graded at least 40 percent better against South Florida than they had against Clemson. He said that there were at least eight or nine plays that were close to breaking for big gains.

One such was play a throw by Johnson to wide receiver Jalen Camp on a third-and-12 play midway through the fourth quarter. With the line forming a clean pocket against a four-man rush, Johnson was just long to Camp.

“If we put that ball on him, or he’s another yard deeper in that route, that’s a 30-yard completion, and the stats look a lot cooler,” Patenaude said.

A big objective against The Citadel will be avoiding tackles for losses, particularly significant losses. Another is improving the third-and-short run game.

“I think we’re going to try to come out and be as balanced as we can possibly be (Saturday),” Patenaude said. “You’ve got to be able to run the ball first, no matter what.”

Collins said that he was “absolutely” seeing progress and the offense was making strides, even if the production in the first two games hasn’t necessarily supplied reams of evidence. He was encouraged by the adaptability that the line showed after the injuries. He liked that the offense was able to run out the final 3:23 to secure the game.

“Every single day, we’re a work in progress, in every phase of everything that we do,” Collins said.

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