Observations from Georgia Tech’s spring game

Staged at an date earlier than usual and on an atypical day, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins offered fans a spring game that in and of itself was a little different, too.

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As his fourth spring practice at Tech nears its end, Collins eschewed a full scrimmage for the Yellow Jackets’ annual spring game Thursday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium, opting instead for a workout that was part practice and part a scrimmage in which score was not kept. (It was held on Thursday in part because a large number of on-campus athletic events Friday would have made holding the spring game Friday logistically difficult.)

As Collins had started spring practice earlier than usual to try to wash out the taste of Tech’s 3-9 season and particularly the crash landing at season’s end, this year’s spring game was about a month earlier than has been the norm.

Further, to give fans a taste of something different, spectators were allowed to watch the game from the field in a tailgate setting. The north end of Grant Field out to the 20-yard line was set aside for Jackets fans to watch the action, many doing so with drinks in their hands on a pleasant spring night in Midtown.

Tech has two more practices that it likely will use following students’ return from spring break, taking place this coming week.

“Really good 13 days of spring practice,” Collins said. “Really proud of the guys, the way they worked, the way they took in a lot of information, embraced the new faces that we have on the coaching staff, the new voices, the new schemes putting in both offensively and defensively, how they came together as a team.”

Observations from the spring game and the first 13 practices.

1. How Jeff Sims looked

As has been the case throughout the spring, there were instances when quarterback Jeff Sims was decisive and accurate throwing downfield, and others when he appeared to have trouble pulling the trigger or threw off-target.

Directing the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense, he completed eight of 16 passes for 66 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

“I think when things are going well, that’s the offense as a collective, everybody’s doing their 1/11th – O-line’s blocking well, receivers are running the right routes, getting open and me just delivering,” Sims said. “And then sometimes when things go bad, it’s either miscommunication, a breakdown in protection or just me missing something or making the wrong read.”

It probably is expecting too much for Sims to have been the best version of himself consistently throughout the spring when he and the players around him were learning the scheme of new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

His occasional difficulty throwing accurately “is not going to be coached out in 12 practices,” said ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain Roddy Jones, who called the game with fellow Tech grad Chris Cotter. “Fundamentals aren’t built over 12 practices.”

Jones pointed out that he liked how Sims stepped up in the pocket when he sensed pass-rush pressure, keeping plays alive while not breaking free of the pocket or remaining a sitting target.

“One he threw, one he ran and there were a couple others where I was like, OK, it looks like that’s something that has been preached to him, and he’s starting to execute,” Jones said. “I thought that was a positive.”

Sims has the summer to stay in the playbook, meet with quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke and to throw with teammates. His work ethic seems unquestionable. But for him and his teammates, there’s still plenty of work to do before the season begins.

2. Making an impression

The secondary, which has the task of replacing four starters, often covered well and was in position to make plays. It was part of the reason (though not all of it) that Sims didn’t complete more passes.

“There’s some new stuff that we’ve got going on,” linebacker Ayinde Eley said. “So it being new, got to get familiar with it, get reps at it, but the execution level was good.”

Defensive back Kenyatta Watson made a pass breakup in the end zone when he was isolated against freshman wide receiver D.J. Moore. Watson, who has faced injury challenges affecting his playing time since he transferred from Texas before the 2021 season, also intercepted walk-on quarterback Brody Rhodes in the end zone on the final play of the scrimmage.

Defensive tackle Makius Scott and linebackers Demetrius Knight and Charlie Thomas were among those making plays in the backfield. Mostly playing with the No. 2 defense, Knight led all defensive players with 11 tackles.

On the other side, slot receivers Nate McCollum, Jamal Haynes and Malik Rutherford continued their strong spring showings on Thursday night. Haynes exploited a breakdown in coverage for a 37-yard touchdown pass from Gibson.

“You need guys other than them, but I think those two guys can be explosive,” Jones said of McCollum and Rutherford.

3. Interpreting the spring game a challenge

All that said, looking for meaning in a spring game can be a tricky task, and any number of plays might have demonstrated the challenge of assessing the action.

For instance, one was an incomplete pass by Sims on a second-and-2 play near midfield. The play was blown up by defensive end Josh Robinson, who shot past left guard Paula Vaipulu and then running back Hassan Hall to put himself in position to sack Sims. On the other side of the line, new tight end Luke Benson effectively handled the pass rush of defensive end Kyle Kennard.

With the quarterbacks not to be tackled, Robinson avoided Sims, who stepped up in the pocket and threw to tight end Dylan Leonard, who was wide open about seven yards downfield, but Sims missed him.

Was the pass protection flawed, or was Robinson showing readiness to be a playmaker? Was Leonard that open because of a defensive breakdown or a smart play call? Would Sims have made a better throw in a live situation (had he already not been sacked)?

If Kennard – who’ll be counted on to replace the production of departed ends Jordan Domineck and Jared Ivey – couldn’t get past Benson, is that more of a reflection on Kennard or Benson?

4. New offense

Long showed some looks breaking from what Tech fans had seen previously with former offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude.

Sims took some snaps from under center rather than out of the shotgun. There were some personnel packages with two tight ends, who also were featured more as targets in the passing game. Leonard’s three catches tied for the most of any target. PeJé Harris, who has been converted from wide receiver to tight end, made an athletic reception for a touchdown in a 11-on-11 drill before the scrimmage began, stretching his arms around linebacker Trenilyas Tatum to catch a pass from Gibson before Tatum could turn around to look for the ball.

Getting the ball in different ways to the slot receivers has been a priority.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

5. Gaining in health

Collins gave an update, albeit vague, about players who missed the spring with injuries or got hurt during it, a group that includes transfer offensive lineman Paul Tchio, defensive tackle Zeek Biggers, wide receivers Avery Boyd and Leo Blackburn, defensive back LaMiles Brooks, tight end Dylan Deveney and linebacker Tyson Meiguez.

All seven could see roles of varying degree in the fall if they are healthy.

Collins said players will be cleared to return over time, “some within a month, some before we really start back up in June and then another couple that’ll be ready by the time we get back to preseason camp. So really excited about that piece.”

On Thursday evening, Tchio (who suffered an apparent lower-leg injury early in the spring) tweeted that watching the spring game had made him “excited for the season” and eager to come back from rehab.