5 things to know about Georgia Tech-Northern Illinois opener

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins likes his acronyms and slogans, and WIN 21 – the motto for the 2021 season, “win” standing for “what’s important now” – is both.

The underlying exhortation is to be focused and effort-filled in each moment – be it a drill in a practice or a play in a game – with the end product being success on the scoreboard.

After two seasons of putting together his roster and training players under his methods, Collins’ third season has grander hopes and expectations after back-to-back three-win seasons.

“Coach Collins has made the goal very clear,” right guard Ryan Johnson said. “We’re here to win games.”

ExploreGeorgia Tech-Northern Illinois: TV, online, radio information

The Yellow Jackets will open Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium against Northern Illinois, with Collins’ team favored to win for only the fourth time in his tenure.

“Now it’s time to put all the things we’ve been working on since January, all the things we’ve been working on since we got here, live and in action on Saturday night,” Collins said.

1. Introducing Northern Illinois

Northern Illinois finished last season 0-6 in the MAC in coach Thomas Hammock’s third season. The Huskies return 19 offensive and defensive starters.

One new starter is quarterback Rocky Lombardi, a graduate transfer from Michigan State. In 22 games with the Spartans, including nine starts, he completed 48% of his passes and had an 11/14 touchdown/interception ratio.

ExploreNorthern Illinois holds back depth chart

Tech coaches looked at his Michigan State game video to try to extrapolate how Northern Illinois might use Lombardi.

“Really nice touch on the deep ball,” Collins said. “He’s accurate on all the intermediate throws, quick decision maker.”

Another Huskies player that Tech is particularly concerned about is wide receiver Tyrice Richie, a first-team All-MAC selection in 2020 after leading the conference in receptions per game (8.8).

“On film, he looks really good, really fast, does great on contested catches,” cornerback Tre Swilling said. “So should be a good game.”

The Huskies have six players on the roster from Georgia, including freshman running back Antario Brown from Savannah. Brown, a three-star prospect at Beach High and the No. 67 player in the state (247Sports Composite), is the highest-rated high-school recruit in Northern Illinois history.

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Helmets sit on the sideline as Northern Illinois University Huskies football players have a walk-through at Huskie Stadium in 2019 in DeKalb. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Helmets sit on the sideline as Northern Illinois University Huskies football players have a walk-through at Huskie Stadium in 2019 in DeKalb. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Helmets sit on the sideline as Northern Illinois University Huskies football players have a walk-through at Huskie Stadium in 2019 in DeKalb. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

2. What coordinators want Saturday

Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker were asked this week what they would be looking for from their units in the season opener.

Patenaude wanted the offense to play with tempo, execute the plays and not beat itself, as penalties and turnovers were costly last season. He also was anticipating “a good mix” of plays, formations and personnel groupings.

“I think we’ll be very, very good on offense if we just have to beat the opponent and not beat Georgia Tech,” he said.

Thacker’s objective is for the defense to play with “unbelievable effort” and for players to be attacking the ball. One of the defense’s goals is to lead FBS in takeaways. Thacker said that there is not a quantitative goal for Saturday, “but we’re looking for those qualitative things (of effort and getting the ball loose), for us to go out and visually display those.”

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Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs (21) celebrates after he scored a touchdown during the first half against Louisville Oct. 9, 2020, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs (21) celebrates after he scored a touchdown during the first half against Louisville Oct. 9, 2020, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs (21) celebrates after he scored a touchdown during the first half against Louisville Oct. 9, 2020, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Northern Illinois won’t be surprised by Tech’s efforts to force fumbles.

“They do a tremendous job of taking the ball away,” Hammock said. “When they go to tackle, there’s guys ripping at the ball actively.”

3. New to the game

Freshman Tech punter David Shanahan is expected to make his debut Saturday. It will be a most unusual first game. Shanahan, born and raised in Ireland, has never seen a football game in person, let alone played in one.

ExploreThe electric Jahmyr Gibbs has yet to show full potential

Shanahan grew up playing Gaelic football, rugby and basketball, but gained an interest in college football around the age of 15, which led to the idea of trying to earn a scholarship in the U.S. as a punter. He ordered footballs online and taught himself to kick, practicing in a field next to his house.

Ultimately, that led to his bold decision in 2019 to leave home and to train for several months in Australia at Prokick Australia, an academy devoted to punting and kicking. Six of the past eight winners of the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s top punter, trained there. (Former Tech punter Pressley Harvin, now with the Steelers, is one of the two exceptions.)

The academy connected him with Tech and general manager Patrick Suddes, and Shanahan committed in May 2020 before signing in December.

Shanahan has compete with Austin Kent, Harvin’s backup last year. Collins has praised Shanahan’s ability to execute the traditional punt as well as the rugby-style punt.

“I think he’s adjusted very well,” Kent said during preseason camp. “He’s done a really great job of just coming in, buying into the culture as well as just working with the rest of the specialists and just doing everything that he’s asked to do. So he’s been really good.”

4. Back in front of a crowd

Saturday’s game will be the first full-capacity game that the Jackets have played in since the end of the 2019 season. During the 2020 season, home attendance was reduced to 20% capacity (about 11,000) for social-distancing purposes.

ExploreTech calls for whiteout for season opener

“Just running out and hearing (fans) scream on third down, hearing them go crazy on kickoff, the first kickoff and everybody yelling, ‘Boom!’ as we kick the ball – it’s those things you can’t imitate, those things that they don’t even practice,” Swilling said. “It’s just genuine, it’s just authentic things that you just kind of miss.”

Patenaude similarly was eager to have Bobby Dodd Stadium at full capacity (though thousands of tickets remained unsold as of Thursday).

He said that Collins is an effective motivator, but “when you walk out here and there’s 50,000-plus people out here, the energy level of what you’re doing is just so much greater, and I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about getting our guys ready to play.”

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Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins shouts instructions during the first half against Duke on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins shouts instructions during the first half against Duke on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins shouts instructions during the first half against Duke on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

5. Watching line play

While Northern Illinois may not be the most effective gauge, Tech’s improvement on the offensive and defensive lines will be assessed. Both groups were lacking last season. Jackets coaches have spoken of the development of right tackle Jordan Williams, defensive end Jordan Domineck and others, and Patenaude brought up at the beginning of the preseason his plans to play “bully ball” behind the veteran offensive line.

The defensive line will be tasked with stopping the Northern Illinois run game and pressuring the quarterback. Defensive ends/outside linebackers coach Marco Coleman has expressed his confidence in the line’s ability to create pressure without the assistance of blitz help.

Defensive end Kevin Harris, a transfer from Alabama described by Thacker as “the twitchiest defensive lineman that we have,” will see his first snaps in a Jackets uniform. Likewise, left tackle Devin Cochran, a three-year starter at Vanderbilt before enrolling at Tech in January as a grad transfer, is expected to be a stronghold on the offensive line.