As Georgia Tech closed spring practice Friday night with its spring game – the first since 2007 that included a tight end and presumably the first in history in which Yellow Jackets players and coaches swayed in rhythm upon hallowed Grant Field to the rap single “Swag Surfin’” – Bobby Dodd Stadium bubbled with good feeling and excitement.
Coach Geoff Collins, having put a one-night moratorium on excessive-celebration penalties, freed multiple offensive linemen to punctuate touchdowns with end-zone spikes. The White-team offense tried a gadget play in which quarterback James Graham threw a pass to Tech great Joe Hamilton, who had snuck into the play in street clothes and was supposed to throw deep to fellow Tech legend Calvin Johnson, but the Gold-team defense foiled Collins’ machinations. Fans and recruits attending the game – the announced crowd was 21,194, setting a record for a Tech spring game – shared their approval of the event on Twitter and perhaps even face to face.
“Obviously, when we’re in big-time ACC games, we’re going to be composed, but just the having-fun element, I wanted our fan base to feel the energy, the excitement that these young men do every single day,” Collins said.
Turning ahead, Collins and his staff will continue to recruit, but now can also plan for the 2019 season with clearer understanding about how to best deploy the roster that they observed and developed in 15 practices. Two position groups – running backs and defensive line – illustrate the challenge ahead.
“That’s the fun part, is kind of seeing all the pieces come together and make an evaluation on who you can be, should be,” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said, speaking Thursday.
As he’s inheriting offensive players for former coach Paul Johnson’s run-heavy option offense, Patenaude has a surplus of running backs and will be bringing in more in the freshman class. Friday’s spring game demonstrated that he has not only numbers but players who are adapting to the new scheme. Jordan Mason, who led Tech running backs last season with 659 rushing yards, was elusive on carries and showed good hands out of the backfield. Christian Malloy, a redshirt freshman, showed quickness and vision in running 13 yards for a touchdown.
Patenaude at times utilized a two-back formation, splitting them beside quarterback Lucas Johnson, to get more of that position onto the field. In that formation and in one-back sets, redshirt freshman Dontae Smith showed noticeable blocking ability. Patenaude praised running-backs coach Tashard Choice for developing his backs’ ability to read holes in the new scheme and knowing where to run.
This summer, Tech will add three more running backs, including four-star back Jamious Griffin of Rome High. Moreover, KirVonte Benson, an All-ACC selection in 2017 who missed last season with a knee injury, should be back, too. It’ll be a full house. Patenaude was hopeful to use them in a rotation, particularly given the fast tempo that his offense uses.
“If we get a long run in – the next guy up, the next guy up – and we can just rotate guys in,” he said. “That’s kind of what we’re shooting for.”
Defensive line coach Larry Knight and defensive ends/outside linebackers coach Marco Coleman face the opposite problem. The defensive front for the White-team defense (first string) spelled it out. Kelton Dawson and Jaquan Henderson were at the end spots, with T.K. Chimedza and Antwan Owens at the tackles. None of the four have ever started.
Further, Chimedza is a redshirt freshman and Henderson played linebacker his first two seasons. While hardly significant in perspective, there was a football-related loss in the tragic death of defensive tackle Brandon Adams, expected to be a top performer for the Jackets.
Speaking Thursday, defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker noted that neither Henderson nor Jordan Domineck (who played end for the Gold team) had played the position previously, “so you’re starting with a low expectation and then build off of that.” (Both fought off blocks and made plays Friday. Domineck had two sacks for the second-unit defense.) Florida transfer Antonneous Clayton will first have to receive a hardship waiver to play in the coming season, but he figures to help, probably as a stand-up end.
For the defense, that could mean a change in tactics. Thacker suggested that the Jackets could be a 4-2-5, 4-3 or 3-4, based on what fits best. The Jackets are deep at safety, which could mean a scheme that leans more heavily on that group. Offensive lineman Jahaziel Lee, who was given a look at defensive tackle in the spring, could find a home there in his final season.
Tech coaches ran a high volume of plays during spring practice, in no small part to try out different combinations to review in coming weeks to determine the best fits.
“We were able to install a lot and then, in doing that, now we’re able to step back, once we get out of spring ball, and go into the summer and see kind of on film and evaluate what we’re best at,” Thacker said. “What’s our best personnel?”
For a roster in flux on offense and defense, a most pressing question.