5 things to watch Friday in Georgia Tech spring game

Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims at spring practice March 30, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims at spring practice March 30, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins will conclude his third spring practice at 6 p.m. Friday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, one final time for the Yellow Jackets to practice en masse before heading into the summer. Coming off a 3-7 season, Tech players and coaches have touted their improvement in all phases.

Before an audience of season-ticket holders and students in the stadium and an ACC Network TV audience, the Jackets will have the opportunity to demonstrate that progress. Five things to watch Friday:

1. Offensive tackles vs. defensive ends

Given Tech’s need to improve its pass protection on offense and the imperative to be more productive with its pass rush on defense, the work that the Jackets’ offensive tackles and defensive ends do against each other is worth watching. That’s especially so because Collins added a few pieces who are expected to lift Tech at both of those positions, graduate-transfer offensive tackle Devin Cochran (Vanderbilt) and transfer defensive end Kevin Harris (Alabama). (Kenneth Kirby, a grad-transfer offensive tackle from Norfolk State, is expected to arrive after he graduates in May.) Others dueling on the edge include right tackle Jordan Williams and ends Jordan Domineck, Antonneous Clayton and Jared Ivey.

Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker practically lit up when given the opportunity to talk Thursday about Cochran. Besides his prototype body – 6-foot-7, 320 pounds and a long reach – “I love his mentality,” Thacker said.

Particularly, Thacker reveled in how Cochran tries to get under the skin of the defensive ends and linebackers he’s assigned to block. No matter the speed of the drill that players are working at, Thacker said, “Devin Cochran most often edges on the side of whatever’s most violent or whatever’s agitating to the D-line and linebackers, which is absolutely a mentality they need as an offensive line, and a mentality that we need as a team.”

2. Offense’s to-do list

Three particular areas of emphasis for the spring for offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude were pre-snap penalties, avoiding turnovers and being more efficient in the red zone. Of the first – prompted by Tech’s 26 false starts last season – Patenaude said that “we’ve done a really, really good job of that.” A year’s experience for center Mikey Minihan of directing pre-snap traffic undoubtedly has helped.

As for turnovers and red-zone play, fans can judge for themselves how the results reflect on the offense and defense. Quarterback Jeff Sims has been prone at times to throwing it to the defense this spring, but it may bear mention that a priority for the secondary this spring has been what cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich termed “ball production.”

Should Sims – or backups Jordan Yates, Demetrius Knight or early enrollee Chayden Peery, who made some really nice throws in Saturday’s practice – pilot the offense into the red zone, the efficiency of the offense will bear watching. Tech scored touchdowns on 56.7% of red-zone possessions last season, 12th in the ACC. Patenaude said that the increased importance of plays close to the goal line calls for identifying matchup advantages and for players to step forth to make plays.

“When you get in the red zone and you have an opportunity to get the ball thrown to you, you have to be a playmaker,” Patenaude said.

3. Watching Sims

As ever, the starting quarterback will be under a microscope. Sims’ physical skills, notably his gifted right arm and his ability to escape the pass rush and either scramble for gains or stay alive for a downfield throw, were demonstrated repeatedly last year as a freshman. Where he sometimes had difficulty was in reading defenses and being decisive and accurate with his throws.

Patenaude testified to the progress that Sims has made in digesting information quickly. He mentioned a two-minute drill that Sims ran in a recent practice in which the defense had rolled coverage to the front side of the field, so Sims calmly looked to the back side of the play, where he connected with receiver Kyric McGowan coming across the field for a long touchdown play.

“I think that the thing that you’ll see with Jeff moving forward is he’s just much more comfortable,” Patenaude said. “And when a quarterback can slow a game down and truly understand where to go with the ball, what to do, what the defense is doing, you play at such a much more calm demeanor.”

4. New starters to watch

With 18 returnees who started four games or more in 2020, there aren’t many spaces for new starters or key contributors, but there’s a few. The aforementioned Cochran is one at left tackle, succeeding Zach Quinney. The left guard spot, manned last year by Jack DeFoor, could be a competition between Austin Smith and Paula Vaipulu.

McGowan, a versatile grad transfer from Northwestern, could start at slot receiver, replacing Ahmarean Brown, now at South Carolina. On defense, linebacker Ayinde Eley, a grad transfer from Maryland, likely has a spot in the starting lineup alongside Quez Jackson, taking David Curry’s spot.

Speaking Wednesday on “Packer & Durham” on the ACC Network, Collins said that Eley has “made a tremendous impact as far as a leader, his intensity, his emotion, him connecting with our team and our culture.”

5. Keeping it fun

As ever with Collins, there’s an eye on marketing and keeping the energy high. Basketball coaches Nell Fortner and Josh Pastner are expected to take part as guest coaches, Pastner said. Thacker said that the “offense, within reason, is going to be set up for some success to be able to put on a show a little bit.”

Collins said that the quarterbacks, rather than merely wearing a different-colored jersey to distinguish themselves as non-contact, will be in “color rush” uniforms – gold helmets, jerseys and pants.

The format will be for the offense to be on one sideline and the defense on the other. When the offense scores on possessions led by either Sims or Peery, those points will go for the Gold team. When Knight or Yates lead the offense to scores, those points will be credited to the White team. Points scored by the defense against Sims or Peery will be contributed to the White total and likewise for the Gold team for the defense if scoring against the offense with Knight or Yates at quarterback.

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