Georgia Tech’s multi-pronged plan for greater passing efficiency

After a freshman season in which his promise and inexperience were both on display, Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims vowed to improve as a passer.

At the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., in July, Sims said that he wanted to improve his completion percentage from 54.9%, which was near the bottom for power-5 conference quarterbacks, to 65% or better. It would be a stunning ascent for Sims and the Yellow Jackets offense.

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Last year, only three ACC quarterbacks completed passes at 65% - Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (first overall pick in the draft), North Carolina’s Sam Howell (voted the ACC preseason player of the year) and Notre Dame’s Ian Book (who set a Notre Dame record with 30 career wins). In 2020, 27 out of 127 FBS teams completed passes at that rate. In 2019, it was 23.

But, Monday, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude offered his own support for the lofty goal.

“That’s where we want to be,” Patenaude said following the team’s third preseason practice. “Sixty-five, 66%, I think historically we’ve kind of been in that area.”

It was indeed Patenaude’s neighborhood when he was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Coastal Carolina (2012-16), when four of his five offenses hit at 63% or higher. At Temple in his two-year run with coach Geoff Collins (2017-18), the Owls’ completion rates were 58% and 57%, respectively.

“There’s a lot of pieces that go into it,” said Patenaude said, who then proceeded to delve into them.

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First, he said, is his responsibility in putting the offense in the right play call.

“If you’re just calling four (vertical routes) every play, your percentage isn’t going to be in the high 60′s,” he said.

The pass protection has to hold up. Receivers have to run routes effectively and catch the ball when it’s thrown to them. Sims (or another quarterback) has to find the right target and deliver the ball accurately.

“If you have a dude that’s wide open and you just sail a ball, that’s on you,” Patenaude said.

It helps, too, to have a run game that compels defenses to commit additional players to stopping the run, and an offense efficient enough to stay out of obvious passing situations. (Penalties often stymied the offense last season.) The completion percentage gets attached to the quarterback, but it’s a group effort.

All that said, a lot of it will be on Sims, whose completion rate was low in part because of inadequate protection, but also in part because he was off target too frequently or made an incorrect read. Offseason improvement should help with the latter, as should the experience of his 10 starts as a freshman.

“I think the biggest thing with him is he knows where to go with the ball,” Patenaude said. “He’s done a tremendous job in understanding the offense. But when he has that go ball on the outside, he’s got to be able to let that guy go make a play.”

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Sims recognized the same challenge that faces him. Asked about a throw that he needs to improve, Sims named his deep balls.

“Sometimes when I throw it over the top, I tend to throw it a little too flat, so it causes me to overthrow the receiver, but that’s just something I work on after practice and just continue to get better at,” he said.

The other is the back-shoulder throw, which is thrown between the receiver’s shoulder closer to the sideline and the sideline.

“Sometimes I find myself getting too wide and releasing the ball a little wide (too close to the sideline), so I don’t really give my wide receiver a chance to catch the ball,” Sims said. “So, just working on that and getting better at that.”

Patenaude’s message to Sims is to give receivers like Malachi Carter and Adonicas Sanders a chance.

“We’ve got some big cats on the outside,” Patenaude said. “You don’t have to be perfect. You’ve just got to give them a ball where they can go and compete.”

Another lesson that Patenaude is imparting is to be willing to make the easy throws, especially when the target is preseason All-ACC running back Jahmyr Gibbs.

“You get the ball down to the back, and it might be your third read,” Patenaude said. “You might just say, ‘Hey, he’s open, I’m throwing it to him.’ You look like you’re a quarterback genius because you dumped the ball off to the back and he runs 30 yards, and it’s like, Oh, what a great read. And the quarterback’s just like, No, that kid’s a dude. I’m giving him the ball.”

Another part of the puzzle is a seemingly obvious facet of the passing game, one that’s under the microscope in the preseason.

“So the biggest thing that we’re going to concentrate on here over the next couple of weeks is, when the ball is in the air, who’s coming down with it?” he said.

Patenaude said that receivers will be charted on who’s winning balls in the air. He posed the scenario of a pass play in the season opener against Northern Illinois, when Sims (or another quarterback) has the option of throwing 50/50 balls to either of two receivers.

“If I’m a quarterback, I’m throwing the ball to the dude that I know is going to give the best opportunity to make a play,” he said.

Improvement in the passing game is imperative for a team with aspirations for a winning record after back-to-back three-win seasons.

Tech was 14th in the 15-team ACC last year in points per game (23.9). There was no shortage of reasons for the lack of production, but an inconsistent passing game that couldn’t hit enough big plays or keep drives going was no small part of the problem.

Even getting to 60% would elevate Tech’s chances for success. In 2019, there were 76 FBS teams that hit the 60% plateau. Of those, 51 (67%) made bowl games.

Last year, Sims hit 60% in two games – ironically, one was his career debut at Florida State, when he led the Jackets to victory by completing 23 of 34 passes (68%). The other was the loss at Boston College, when he was 12-for-18 (67%).

The potential is in there for Sims, Patenaude and the Tech offense. The challenge will be making it a habit.