Georgia Tech’s task: Slow Drake Maye, North Carolina offense

Credit: Sarah K. Spencer/AJC

As he has waited for a phone call offering a chance to return to the NFL, nine-year veteran and former N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon has entertained himself and his Twitter audience with video clips from ACC games that primarily break down the league’s quarterbacks.

The insightful explanations, delving into play design and quarterback decision-making, have drawn an audience of ACC fans, media and even coaches and perhaps portend a future in a broadcast booth or studio. While Glennon typically posts three to four videos a week, though, he hasn’t highlighted the quarterback who has emerged as the runaway candidate for conference player of the year and has entered the conversation for the Heisman Trophy – North Carolina redshirt freshman Drake Maye – since the No. 13 Tar Heels’ first game of season. It isn’t out of enmity toward Glennon’s archrival school.

“I don’t know what I can really point out, other than this guy throws the ball really well,” Glennon said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That’s only the start of Glennon’s praise for Maye, the dual-threat QB whom Georgia Tech is tasked with trying to slow Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C. Glennon called him “unbelievably talented” and said he can’t find many weaknesses. As talk has grown about his NFL prospects, Glennon made a point of evaluating other top draft candidates in college football.

“And I think NFL teams, if they had a choice, would choose Drake Maye over any player in college football,” Glennon said. “I think he’s that good.”

After 10 starts, Maye leads FBS in passing touchdowns (34) and total offense (399.6 yards per game), is second in passing yards per game (341.2) and third in passing efficiency (178.9). In 361 pass attempts this season, he has thrown three interceptions. He goes into the Tech game having thrown 175 passes in a row without an interception.

“I think he does a good job at reading coverages,” Tech cornerback Myles Sims said. “He’s a pretty efficient pocket passer. The ball comes out quite early, quite fast. From a defensive perspective, you’ve just got to stay patient.”

With a flick of the wrist, Maye throws with power, touch and accuracy. He moves well and makes on-target throws even when off-balance. He avoids mistakes.

“I feel like people have tried different things bringing pressure, but he also sees the field, as well, and he can get the ball out of hands and throws hot,” Glennon said. “He just has the answers. The numbers don’t lie. No coordinator’s been successful in whatever they’ve tried against him.”

And, it needn’t be forgotten, he also leads the Tar Heels in rushing with 58.4 yards per game and has scored five rushing touchdowns.

“Really good with his feet,” Tech interim coach Brent Key said. “He’s sneaky fast, whether it’s a designed quarterback draw or just taking off and scrambling.”

Add in that he has delivered when it’s counted – he has led six second-half comebacks, most in FBS – and it’s not without reason that he’s being compared with the likes of Clemson great Trevor Lawrence, the first overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft. Glennon likens Maye to Los Angeles Chargers star Justin Herbert.

“To me, I think he should win the Heisman Trophy,” Glennon said. “I think it should be him or (USC’s) Caleb Williams. There’s a couple weeks left in the season, but what he’s doing there – that’s just not a team that should probably only have one loss, and he’s just a huge reason behind that.”

Upsetting the Tar Heels, a 21.5-point favorite as of Friday, likely will entail containing Maye to at least some degree and will require a total team effort. With Maye at the wheel, North Carolina averages 40.1 points per game, including 35.8 points per game during its current six-game win streak. The Yellow Jackets average 17.1 points per game and will be without Nos. 1 and 2 quarterbacks Jeff Sims (apart from the team indefinitely after foot sprain) and Zach Pyron (out for the season after breaking his clavicle), respectively.

While the UNC defense has some pliability, giving up a league-high 31.3 points per game, the Jackets could have trouble getting past the high 20′s. A fact: North Carolina has been held under 30 points once this season, in a 27-24 win at Miami on Oct. 8. That’s the same number of times that the Jackets have crossed the 30-point threshold, and that against FCS Western Carolina, a 35-17 win Sept. 10.

Not giving the ball away – the Jackets had a season-high four interceptions in the loss to Miami on Saturday, two by backup Zach Gibson, expected to start against North Carolina – is critical. The Jackets offense can control the ball with its run game, though doing so with Gibson (not as much of a run threat as Sims or Pyron) will be more difficult.

“We’ll look for any way to be able to run the football whatever way that presents itself through the week without giving away game-plan situations,” Key said. “But the ability to run the football, especially this game, is going to be a real paramount thing that we’ve got to get done and find ways to do that.”

Special teams can help. The Jackets could use a big game from punter David Shanahan and the punt coverage team, which has had its issues, to give the Tar Heels long fields. A big play via a block or a return would be ideal. (North Carolina has not allowed a blocked punt or kick this season.)

But the burden falls most heavily on Tech’s defense. Sims, cornerback Zamari Walton and nickel back K.J. Wallace will be challenged to stick tightly to a receiver group led by Josh Downs (a North Gwinnett High grad). Safeties LaMiles Brooks and Clayton Powell-Lee will need to keep the secondary organized and support in coverage.

Tech’s defensive front has to pressure Maye and limit him as a run threat.

“We’re just trying to compress the pocket, tighten down on our rushes, because we know he can run through it and run it anytime,” defensive tackle Makius Scott said.

Getting Maye off the field via turnover would be exceedingly helpful. The Jackets have had enormous success with takeaways – they are tied for fifth in FBS with 22 turnovers gained – but were shut out for the first time this season in the loss to Miami. North Carolina has lost possession three times via interception and six via fumble.

“Our priority is always to get the ball out,” said Scott, who has one fumble recovery this season.

Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker’s unit has had its successes against the pass this season. The Jackets’ coverage and pressure have created 10 interceptions, tied for fourth in the ACC, and its opposition completion percentage (58.9%) ranks fourth.

Glennon’s suggestion for Tech and Thacker is to pressure as much as possible and disguise coverages.

“Defensively, they do pressure, and they’re pretty sound,” Glennon said of Tech.

Tech fans, at least, can appreciate a star in the making. They’ve witnessed more than their share in recent years. In the past four years alone, the Jackets have played three quarterbacks who’ve become first-round picks – Pitt’s Kenny Pickett (2022), Duke’s Daniel Jones (2019) and Lawrence.

And if Saturday isn’t enough, even with the end of the ACC’s two-division format that has grouped Tech and UNC together, the Jackets and Tar Heels (and Maye) will see each other again next season.

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