Improvement of Georgia Tech passing game a piece-by-piece process

In the months before spring practice began, Georgia Tech wide receivers devoted themselves to honing their route running. Training in the indoor practice facility, they sharpened pass patterns common in the playbook, such as curls and comebacks.

The idea was to improve at a facet of the game that they didn’t excel at last season – creating space between themselves and opposing cornerbacks.

“It translates over to the spring, so everybody in the room that put in the work in the offseason is looking a lot better at creating separation on their routes,” wide receiver Adonicas Sanders said.

Tech’s passing game in 2020 was like the Yellow Jackets’ season as a whole. There were some glimpses of effective and explosive play, but it was largely a subpar operation. Only two power-conference teams completed passes at a lower rate than the Jackets’ 53.7% completion rate. On the other hand, Tech averaged 7.0 yards per attempt, 37th highest of the 65 power-conference teams, evidence that freshman quarterback Jeff Sims could hit for big plays when they did connect.

“We were highly ranked as far as explosive plays, but when you talk about just being efficient in the passing game, we’ve got to get better,” wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon said Thursday. “And we understand that, and we’ve attacked that this offseason.”

Spring practice, of course, is a time for optimism. It would raise eyebrows if players and coaches were anything but confident of progress. Regardless, coaches and players offered their belief that the Jackets’ passing attack will be an improved model this fall.

“I think it’s a part-and-whole situation, and I think that our parts have gotten better,” tight ends coach Chris Wiesehan said. “And I’m not saying the tight-end position alone. I’m saying globally. I think we’re better up front. I think our quarterback’s going to have a better understanding of the scheme. I think the running backs have a better understanding of the scheme.”

Dixon said that coaches made a presentation to the offense about how each position plays a role in making the passing game work.

“When we do our job and everybody across the board – not just receivers – offensive line, the tight ends, the quarterback, the running backs – when everybody’s on the same page, and we make the right reads and do what we’re supposed to do, then we have success in the passing game,” Dixon said.

Tight end Dylan Deveney has experienced that unit-wide absorption of offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s scheme after two seasons.

“For Year 1, we were all over the place,” Deveney said. “No one really knew what they were doing. Year 2, we were a little bit better, and now, Year 3, we’re really stepping into that, of everyone knowing what everyone does on the field. And when you know what everyone does on the field, it makes your job that much easier.”

For receivers, it might be recognizing the pass coverage and knowing how to adjust routes. For the offensive line, it could be knowing how blocking assignments need to be adjusted in the face of a blitz or a defensive-line stunt. For tight ends and running backs, there’s the responsibility of instantly recognizing which blitzing defender to pick up, as well as finding holes in the defense as targets. For the quarterback, it’s processing all of that, knowing where to deliver the ball and doing so quickly.

And then comes each part actually performing the tasks at hand. A breakdown in any one area can blow up the play, as happened with regularity last season.

“When everyone does their 1/11th, that just elevates your offense, and makes it a lot better,” Deveney said.

Given the expected strength of the run game with backs Jahmyr Gibbs, Jordan Mason, Dontae Smith and Jamious Griffin, the passing game should suffice if it can serve as a capable complement.

It’s worth noting that, in Tech’s three wins last season, the Jackets averaged 227 passing yards per game, hardly an overwhelming total. (It was 187.1 yards in the seven losses.) But the Jackets completed 60.8% of their passes and had a 7/3 touchdown/interception ratio in the wins, while they were 51.0% and 7/10 in the seven losses.

Patenaude will have more tools available. While wide receiver Jalen Camp and offensive linemen Jack DeFoor and Zach Quinney graduated, grad-transfer wide receiver Kyric McGowan is a versatile addition and grad-transfer offensive tackle Devin Cochran looks like he’ll be an effective pass blocker on the left side of the line, Sims’ blind side. Dixon praised Malachi Carter’s consistency in improvement this spring, in addition to his increased speed and size.

Sanders raved about the work that Sims has put in. He said that Sims is a constant presence doing video work in Patenaude’s office and has first-to-arrive, last-to-leave work habits.

“It’s translating over into practice,” Sanders said. “You can see he’s getting better with the coverages and making a lot better throws. It’s going to be a big upcoming season for Jeff Sims.”

If that’s the case, it’ll be a big season for the offense as a whole.