Breaking down Jahmyr Gibbs’ debut: ‘Oh, my goodness’

The first second of Jahmyr Gibbs' first college game had yet to elapse before he startled Geoff Collins. The freshman running back was lined up to receive the opening kickoff from Central Florida on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and the Yellow Jackets were expecting a kick to his right. Gibbs lined up accordingly.

However, Knights kicker Daniel Obarski sent the kickoff to the opposite side, between the hashmarks and the UCF sideline. Normally in this situation, the returner flanked to the left – in this case, Dontae Smith – fields the kickoff. Indeed, Smith drifted back to receive the kick. However, Gibbs, whose speed and quickness astounded teammates and coaches in the preseason, dashed along the goal line to position himself to receive the kickoff at the 4-yard line.

“I’ve been coaching for awhile and, have not seen that much, if at all,” Collins said.

Gibbs was only getting started in an afternoon of resetting expectations. Aided by blocks from Smith, Jerry Howard and Jaytlin Askew, Gibbs slipped a tackler and then cut to the UCF sideline, speeding away for a 75-yard return on his first touch as a college player. Smith threw one block at the 14-yard line and, with Gibbs already five yards ahead, nearly caught up to him to almost block another Knights player that would have freed Gibbs to score. The play showcased Gibbs' breathtaking combination of elusiveness, acceleration, and top-end speed.

ExploreJahmyr Gibbs honored for play against UCF

“That opening kickoff, I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness,’” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “He had to track the ball all the way back to the other side (hash mark). And he broke that thing off, and he was gone. He’s really explosive.”

It began an afternoon in which Gibbs – for his debut, at least – proved himself equal to the build-up that accompanied his recruitment, signing and arrival at Tech from Dalton High. As a threat in the return game, catching the ball out of the backfield and running it, Gibbs offered a first taste of what could be a prolific Jackets career.

“He’s kind of like that Alvin Kamara-type guy,” said Patenaude, referring to the Saints' Pro Bowl running back.

A look at his two touchdown plays – one a 9-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Jeff Sims and the other a 33-yard run – further illustrate his potential as a dynamic piece of the Tech offense.

The reception was on a third-and-goal from the UCF 9-yard line late in the first half. Gibbs lined up in the backfield to Sims' left. There was one wide receiver (Malachi Carter) to the left and three to the right. At the snap, Carter broke to the corner of the end zone and brought all three UCF defensive backs to that side of the field with him, a coverage breakdown that failed to account for Gibbs. It left Gibbs, whose assignment was to run a route based on the coverage he saw, to bend back to the middle of the field, where he was wide open for Sims to find him for the touchdown. Patenaude praised Gibbs' read and extolled his acumen for the game.

“He’s physically gifted, but he just understands football,” Patenaude said. “If we say, ‘Hey, if you do this, and they do this, you do this,’ and he’s like, ‘OK,’ and that’s what he does.”

Further, Sims' pass actually was a little behind him, but Gibbs caught it without a problem, more evidence of his ability as a receiver. Gibbs caught four passes for 60 yards against UCF – more catches and more yards than any Tech back had in a game last season.

The touchdown run was on a first-and-10 from the UCF 33 at the start of the fourth quarter. It was a well-executed counter run play. The right side of the offensive line blocked to its left as Gibbs made a first step to the left to get the defense flowing in that direction. At the same time, left guard Jack DeFoor pulled to the right and tight end Jack Coco followed. Gibbs took the handoff from Sims, turned back to the right and followed DeFoor and Coco’s blocks at the point of attack.

From there, Gibbs was a blur. Coming from the backside of the play, Knights safety Richie Grant gave chase. Grant, a two-time first-team All-American Athletic Conference selection, appeared to have a bead on Gibbs, taking an angle to bring him down. However, starting at about the 30 after clearing Coco, Gibbs hit another gear, gaining speed like a boulder rolling downhill.

Having underestimated Gibbs' speed, Grant had to adjust his path of pursuit and could catch him only just shy of the goal line, where Gibbs' momentum carried him into the end zone.

“Shout-out to Coco,” Gibbs said. “I did the rest from there. Great blocks downfield from the receivers, too.”

Gibbs' 219 all-purpose yards on 21 touches earned him ACC rookie of the week honors, the second week in a row that a Tech freshman earned the award, following Sims.

Patenaude will have to divvy snaps and touches between Gibbs, Jamious Griffin (87 yards on 10 touches against UCF), Dontae Smith (55 yards on seven touches) and, when he returns from a foot injury, All-ACC running back Jordan Mason. But a stunner of a debut made it clear that Gibbs’ role figures to be pronounced.

“He gives us a lot of flexibility,” Patenaude said. “We’re really excited about being able to build some packages around him.”