Learning on the job, Graham looks like right QB at Georgia Tech

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A look at the big plays from ACC matchup between Georgia Tech and North Carolina in Atlanta. (Video courtesy of ACC)

James Graham wasn’t perfect in his first start at quarterback for Georgia Tech, yet he trended upward as time went on Saturday, and the redshirt freshman appears to be in position to start again when the Yellow Jackets play Saturday at Duke.

Tech coaches said he’s improving, and that may mean that quarterback Tobias Oliver will play more at wide receiver, as he did in the 38-22 loss to North Carolina when he caught a 9-yard pass from Graham.

“I think he just settled into the game,” quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “When you’re a first-time starter and you have the week of preparation and all eyes are on you and everybody is counting on you to do the things you do, I think there’s some inherent pressure.”.

Coaches like to say that Graham has a “live arm,” and he overthrew a few receivers, some times when they had no defenders particularly nearby.

“He got those kind of first-drive jitters out of the way,” Patenaude said. “It’s different when you’re a starter than when you just come in. He settled in and played fairly well.”

The Jackets started slowly against the Tar Heels, and trailed 17-0 at halftime, before scoring touchdowns on three of seven second-half possessions.

Twice Graham threw touchdown passes, connecting with wide receiver Malachi Carter from 28 yards in the third quarter and wideout Ahmarean Brown from 32 in the fourth.

He completed 11 of 24 passes for 171 yards, the two scores, and was intercepted twice while also running a team-high 13 times for 48 yards.

“You could see James Graham get better throughout the course of the game, and I think that’s true for everybody in our program,” coach Geoff Collins said at Tuesday’s weekly news conference.

Tech (1-4, 0-2 ACC) has deployed three different starting quarterbacks, beginning with Tobias Oliver at Clemson, Lucas Johnson for two games, Oliver again and then Graham.

They’ve all played in each game for which they were healthy. Johnson has missed the past two with an upper-body injury, and Graham missed action in September with a foot injury.

Graham came from Fitzgerald High School as a dazzling 6-foot-1, 192-pound athlete and he played in three games as a freshman, completing his only pass attempt and running five times for 27 yards.

He, like the entire Tech offense, is transitioning from a pure option offense to what may one day be an NFL-style attack. There’s evidence that he’s growing in his role.

While he was sacked twice by the Tar Heels, he may have avoided other sacks through attention to detail and by shortening his drop-backs on passing plays.

“We talked about he was dropping too deep in the pocket, and kind of putting the tackles at risk. He fixed that completely,” Patenaude said. “So, he stood in there. Part of the reason why he was standing in there was because he took the coaching and said, ‘I can’t be that deep; I’m going to hurt the protection,’ and he knew it.”

Oliver’s role at wide receiver figures to grow at Duke (3-2, 1-1) as coaches acknowledge his skills as a ball carrier. He’s one of seven FBS players who this season have two kickoff returns for 40 or more yards, and he’s clearly electric with the ball in his hands.

“Absolutely, in every phase,” Collins said. “He had two kickoff returns on Saturday, and people are having to be strategic in how they kick to him. We’re constantly being creative with him because he’s a playmaker, he’s a competitor, so you’ll see him doing different things for us.

“Won’t give too much away, but ... when you have someone with a skill set like that, we want to showcase him for the betterment of the team.”

Graham isn’t the only one adjusting.

When the Jackets want to pass the football, he and center William Lay III, a sophomore walk-on who is filling in for injured senior Kenny Cooper, tag team when calling out pass protections for the line based on what they see in the opposing lineup.

That also is an adjustment for Patenaude and offensive-line coach Brent Key.

“We actually had a long conversation about it today in practice because we got a look that we hadn’t seen, and we called it one thing and it wasn’t good communication ...,” Patenaude said. “The great thing with Will Lay is he’s a really, really smart guy, so from his understanding of protections and fronts, he does a lot of it.

“My background is that the quarterback does it all. But when you have a young guy that’s kind of still figuring it out, he needs to have a little bit of help from the center. And in Brent’s system in the past, the center always called it, so it’s kind of been a combination of both.”