Against South Florida on Saturday, Georgia Tech’s offense did not enjoy its fairest hour.
The Yellow Jackets labored to score 14 points, needing the help of a short field to obtain one of their touchdowns in the 14-10 win. Watching from his broadcast booth as the Jackets scraped for 3.7 yards per play, ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain Roddy Jones viewed it as one might expect of someone who is the father of young children – first, unsteady steps.
“If fans are looking at 14 points as being sort of an alarm for this offense and how they’re going to be, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it,” Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday.
Jones applauded offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude for his flexibility in running an offense that is highly divergent from what he did at Temple, when he worked with drop-back passers and threw close to 50 percent of the time. Thus far, Tech has run 71 percent of the time and played three different quarterbacks.
“Coach Patenaude has done a really good job figuring out ways to move the ball when you don’t have the personnel, the experience to be able to execute the stuff that he ultimately, in a perfect world, wants to do,” Jones said. “So I think they’re still finding an identity.”
Jones also recognized that, two games into playing a new offense, players may not be feeling entirely at ease. He knows this because he went through it himself as a redshirt freshman A-back in 2008 - Paul Johnson’s first season as Georgia Tech’s coach.
“So early in the season, to be honest with you, we had no idea what we were doing, looking back on it,” Jones said. “I’m serious.”
In 2008, Tech averaged 4.4 yards per play in a 19-16 win over Boston College. A week later, the Jackets lost at Virginia Tech 20-17, although the yards-per-play rate was a robust 6.6.
Halfway through the season, the Jackets earned perhaps the strangest win of Johnson’s 11 seasons at Tech, a 10-7 win against FCS Gardner-Webb. The play early on that season bore little resemblance to the offense that became one of the most efficient scoring machines in FBS.
“It was like each week, we basically saw something brand new (on defense),” Jones said. “We saw it in practice, but it was a brand-new defense and a brand-new way to play (on offense). We were just holding on for dear life and just hoping our athletes would make plays.”
Quarterback Lucas Johnson might be able to relate. He completed 11 of 17 passes against USF, but totaled 45 passing yards with one interception, off a tipped pass. Jones’ perception of Johnson was that he didn’t look comfortable and seemed to be thinking a lot.
Jones was sympathetic to the fact that Johnson’s last meaningful snaps in an actual game – not counting his three snaps against Clemson – were in 2015, his senior year of high school at Mt. Carmel High in San Diego. Since then, he redshirted in 2016, was the holder on place kicks and backup quarterback in 2017 and missed 2018 with a foot injury.
Johnson is playing for the first time at the college level, getting readjusted to the chaos of a game after three seasons on the sideline and getting acquainted with a new offense.
“There’s a lot on these guys’ plates when they get to the line of scrimmage in terms of getting in the right play, and that’s run or pass, and sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of growing in that.”
Jones said he was interested to see how the offense evolves in coming weeks, particularly how quarterback Tobias Oliver is used. Saturday, Oliver returned a kickoff and lined up at slot receiver with quarterback James Graham in the game in addition to taking snaps at quarterback. On some occasions, Oliver shifted out of slot into the backfield to line up alongside Graham in a two-back alignment. Oliver’s utility role may have been a glimpse of where he and the offense are headed.
More tests and experiments await for Patenaude, Johnson and the entire offense, starting with Saturday’s home game against the Citadel. Johnson may not prove to be the quarterback who seizes the full-time starting job, and the offense as a whole may not rewrite pages of the Tech record book, as Johnson’s did. But writing either off after two games, even for this season, may be hasty.
“They’re still trying to find their identity a little bit,” Jones said. “I think that takes time.”