In what proved to be Georgia Tech’s final game of the season, quarterback Jeff Sims showed a little bit of all that his freshman season had encompassed, all in the first quarter.
On the offense’s first play from scrimmage, he underthrew wide receiver Jalen Camp for an interception. On the third play of the next drive, he slipped away from a blitz to throw a pinpoint 11-yard completion to Camp. On a third-and-10, he extended the possession by standing firm in the pocket as the pass rush closed in on him and lofted a pass that Camp ran under for a 46-yard completion. He finished the 98-yard touchdown drive on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line by eluding two defenders in the backfield and then lowering his shoulder to blast his way into the end zone.
As the Yellow Jackets head into the offseason, the prospects for their offense are a reflection of the quarterback who took nearly all of the team’s 691 offensive snaps in the 2020 season. Tech has plenty of reason to believe that the outlook is bright, but there’s also a lot to improve and clean up.
Overall, the unit improved. The team’s yards-per-play average in ACC games improved from 2019 (5.2 to 5.6), as did its third-down conversion rate (33% to 40.5%) and its red-zone efficiency (63.2% to 69.2%). The bottom line was better, with the Jackets averaging 24.2 points against ACC competition, up from 19.1 in 2019. Their 56 points on Duke was Tech’s highest output ever in the history of the 88-game series with the Blue Devils.
The play up front was better, particularly with the addition of grad transfer Ryan Johnson at right guard. Tech may have been at its best when pounding the ball between the tackles, as evidenced by its four games with at least 200 rushing yards.
Pass protection was more coordinated, and the run blocking often precipitated big plays by freshman running back Jahmyr Gibbs.
Looking ahead, offensive-line coach Brent Key will have four of the five linemen who started for him in 2020 – left tackle Zach Quinney, center Mikey Minihan, Johnson and right tackle Jordan Williams. He’ll also receive grad-transfer offensive tackle Devin Cochran, who started 32 games in three seasons at Vanderbilt. Left guard Jack DeFoor has not announced a decision on whether he’ll return for a second senior season, as permitted by the NCAA, but it won’t be a surprise if he moves on.
Either way, it’s a solid core, and transfer guard Nick Pendley and a large group of returning freshmen, including Paula Vaipulu, also should help.
However, false-start penalties plagued the unit throughout the season, an issue that Tech will have to solve. And the line is far from a finished product. The exceeding ability of Gibbs, along with backups Jordan Mason, Jamious Griffin and Dontae Smith, sometimes hid failures in run blocking, and Sims’ elusiveness did the same for the pass blocking, as he turned several would-be sacks into scrambles for positive yardage.
In league games, Tech was stopped for a loss 7.4 times per game, up from 6.4 in 2019, when the transition from former coach Paul Johnson’s offense was in full effect.
The offense’s most obvious strength is Gibbs, who burst onto college football’s conscience from his first touch, a 75-yard kickoff return against Central Florida. A dynamic playmaker, Gibbs made defenders miss, broke tackles and ran with fury as he amassed 138.3 all-purpose yards per game, fourth in the ACC. He’ll be one of the top returning running backs in the conference.
With a full offseason in the weight room ahead of him and the experience gained from this season, he stands to be an improved version of himself in 2021. He is one of eight starters expected back (not including DeFoor), a trove of experience for Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude to work with.
Another key returnee, of course, is his backfield mate Sims, who often showed breathtaking ability as a passer and on his feet, but also revealed the growth he faces in coming seasons.
Sims completed 54.9% of his passes, 12th in the ACC. To some degree it reflects his appetite for throwing deep balls, as well as pass-protection failures, but also a lack of consistency. Compared with past ACC freshman quarterbacks in recent seasons, the completion rate is a little below average, although his 13/13 touchdown/interception ratio is nearly at the bottom.
The upcoming spring practice and offseason will be critical for Sims to develop as a decision maker and passer. But, the skill and work ethic are there for him to become an efficient dual-threat quarterback.
Tech’s primary tight ends, Dylan Deveney and Dylan Leonard, showed improvement as blockers, both in the run and pass game. Still, both need to get better and figure to as they continue to gain strength and experience. Deveney, it is worth remembering, began playing football only as a high-school senior. Neither was used much as a target. Including No. 3 tight end Jack Coco, the position produced 11 catches, which is 7.2% of Tech’s reception total.
Both Deveney and Leonard are big targets with agility and can be a larger part of the passing game. That could depend in part on Sims’ progression and the degree to which Tech throws the ball. The Jackets had the second highest run/pass ratio in the ACC (59/41).
Tech’s wide receiver group loses two top producers in Jalen Camp (29 catches for 439 yards) and Ahmarean Brown (11 catches for 183 yards). Of returnees, none are overwhelming, but at various moments Malachi Carter and Adonicas Sanders showed their potential to become No. 1 targets, and Pejé Harris emerged as a slot receiver with good hands, catching seven of his 11 passes in the final three games of the season.
Freshmen Ryan King, Avery Boyd and Nate McCollum all earned playing time, although King and Boyd both suffered season-ending injuries. Signee James BlackStrain was the team’s lone four-star prospect among high-school signees, and grad-transfer Kyric McGowan (Northwestern) looks like he can contribute immediately.
Ultimately, the group was better, but improvement has to be made everywhere. It’s worth noting that Tech’s total offense jumped from 286.3 yards per game in 2019 (127th in FBS) to 389.9 in 2020 (71st). A similar jump would be a lot to ask, but if the Jackets can start by cutting down on physical and mental mistakes, it would put the offense in a much more competitive realm heading into 2021.
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com