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Mailbag 9/16: Georgia Tech's Defense, the FTRS Starting Lineup, and More!

This week's mailbag features a lot of questions about the defense...and even goes so far as to line up our writing staff in the flexbone?

Scott Cunningham

Since the Paul Johnson era began with Josh Nesbitt I believe that Justin Thomas stands on top of the rest of the quarterbacks who came before him. While there are certainly some plays where you look to your fellow tech fan with a look of flustered confusion, I have seen him flash with natural ability. From his speed and shiftiness to his satisfactory passing game, I like what I see out of the youngster. And while I, like most tech fans, have our worries for the rest of the season, I am looking forward to Thomas’ development towards next year’s squad. Am I wrong on this or am I just looking through gold-colored glasses?

No, Thomas is clearly a highly gifted player. I think the thing he displays more than any other QB under Paul Johnson is his ability to make defenders miss. He's shifty, he's slippery, and boy, does that kid have some jets. He accelerates really well with a great top speed. I think that running the ball, he's the best signal-caller we've had since Nesbitt, and could even be better than him. (They're completely different runners, so I won't definitively say which was better.) From a passing standpoint, he's been a bit hit-or-miss, but the times that he's been on, he's looked pretty good -- better than we were ever able to really say about Nesbitt, Washington, or Lee. I think Thomas has some development to do and some skills to refine, but he certainly shows the potential to be the clear best QB we've had at Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson.

Is there anybody on VT's offense that you think might especially give us trouble?

I want to start by saying that the Hokies come into this game 90th nationally in Total Offense against FBS competition, at 354.5 yards per game. (For reference, Georgia Tech is 45th at 447.5 ypg.) So they haven't exactly been a high-octane offense. If I had to pick a couple of players to watch, one would be the immediately obvious -- their new QB, Michael Brewer. He's 76-for-122 through three games with 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He's been intercepted twice in each of the last two games where he's gone 53-for-92 (under 58% completion percentage). The complicated thing is that the Hokies have five receivers with at least 9 catches, and nobody has more than 14 thus far. So they spread the ball around well, and in a way that's fairly unpredictable for opposing defenses. Tech needs to be particularly careful in the passing game. The other one to watch is the Hokies' leading rusher, and a name you're all probably familiar with, the freshman Shai McKenzie. On only 23 carries so far, McKenzie has gone for 131 yards -- although 106 of them were on 9 carries against William & Mary. He's carried the ball 7 times in each of the last two games, for a total of 25 yards and an average of under 1.8 yards per carry. It'll be nice to shut down McKenzie if he sees the field, but at the same time, we recruited the kid to play B-back for a very good reason. Keep an eye on him.

If the team keeps playing like this can we petition CPJ to have the stadium start selling alcohol? It would help us all get thru the game and could be our sad-fandom consolation prize. I actually heard a father apologizing to his young son during the 3rd quarter on Saturday for raising him a Tech fan.

I wish they would. It would help attendance, boost morale of the fans, and create a rowdier atmosphere. Unfortunately it wouldn't make the AA any money, but maybe it would be a better idea if it did. (cough)

Also, yeah. Welcome to Atlanta sports, where the struggle is real.

Defensive line: So what do we do? Find offensive players to shift over? It’s too late to add weight to any of these guys this season. At each position we seem to have an issue. With some it is being too light, with some it is being too slow, with some it is being too young and with some it is all of these. Even Gotsis has been pushed around more than I would have expected. Green has had some good plays but he is not enough. And Rook-Chungong looks like he is going to be a great player one day. But what do we do now? How would you handle making up for the liabilities in our defensive line? How do you hide this from opposing offenses? How do you scheme it? What is the pep talk or technique that you impart to these players? I know this looks like more than one question but it really isn’t. What do we do?

Similar to what packerman said in his response comment, if the bodies up front aren't enough, you have to send more. Now, sending more has consequences. It leaves guys open or results in more one-on-one coverage, or even both. It's a dangerous, high-risk, high-reward kind of game you have to play, but just leaving the front 4 alone to get pushed around and kept away from the quarterback is far worse. The thing is, even a terrible quarterback can find a receiver if he's given enough time, and the greatest back 7 of all time couldn't defend a receiving corps if there were effectively zero pass rush. Stopping the passing game has a lot more to do with rushing the QB than a lot of folks realize, and so it's going to have to happen, regardless of what strategic measures that involves. I think you're going to end up seeing more rushers per play until some sense of pressure has been established, and I also think you're going to see the scheme get more creative to get that pressure without sacrificing any more numbers than are absolutely necessary.

For those who have paid more attention to the line play than me, how much have we blitzed so far this season? If we’ve been limiting our use of the Blitz, then it will be interesting to see what happens when we show our hand a bit more.

I have paid some attention to it, and though I can't give a great estimate on how many plays, I can say that it's happening more often than it should be. I expect that it'll continue to be that way (maybe even more so) until we can establish some sense of pressure from the front 4.

How can players with the experience of Nealy and Johnson get so many reads wrong? And, subtext question. When he gets the reads right, why does Nealy not break loose from the blocker more often. Damn, I though he was better than this.

Because we have to commit so many to run support, the play action pass has been ulta-effective at times this year. If the front four can get it done more by themselves, that's a problem that will happen a lot less often. For Nealy, I think he's suffered by being our best linebacker and playing against option teams, who want to negate him more than basically anyone else on the field. I haven't had the chance to watch Johnson a ton, but I haven't really noticed him out of position. I'll pay more attention to him this weekend though.

What did CPJ say at halftime Saturday that he did not say the past two weeks?

Great question. He actually referenced it in his postgame conference, I believe it was. He said something along the lines of how he told them, "Don't let up, let's go finish this." Then they went out, let up, and almost didn't finish this.

Playing football with college kids gets a little weird sometimes.

What's the word on the recruiting front for the good guys? Are there any new surprises there?

I can't really say that there are any surprises waiting in the wings. There are a couple of major focus targets that Georgia Tech seems to be right in the thick of it for. I can't really say who, but I'm guessing we'll have one to two commitments between now and the end of October. I do know that there are a lot of guys coming in for the Miami game, and I saw a lot of guys there on Saturday for the Southern game, including Nathan Cottrell.

What do think is the reason by our lack of ability to play a full 4 quarter game? Not good enough conditioning, inexperience, bad coaching, general opinion of opponent as inferior, etc?

I think it's completely mental for the most part, and I think it's another sign of youth on the field. The only exception I can think of is last year's uga game, where the D-Line was clearly exhausted at the end. The reason there was that the starters had to play so much of the game due to a talent differential with the backups, and by the end they were just gassed (as any D-Lineman would be after little relief over the course of a game). As far as this year so far though, I think it's young kids learning to maintain focus and energy for a full 60 minutes. Who knows when (or if) we'll see that from the team as a whole this year.

What are the odds that our defense isn’t nearly as bad as they’ve seemed, and that they just suck at defending the option? The second half of Tulane (a passing offense) we pitched a shutout. We don’t play any more option teams this year – could we still be alright?

I think that's a perfectly valid point. In playing Wofford and Southern, we played a couple of teams that are good at what they do, and do something that's tough for anyone to defend, especially without a particularly imposing defensive line (which most college programs tend not to). Now, are there things that we should have done better in those games? Absolutely. Do I think that they did some things we'll see them do against any offense, for better or worse? No question. But I do think that the styles of offense that we've played against have created a unique challenge for our defense that had something to do with the results.

We have 14 writers on staff according to the Masthead, which is enough to form a football team for a 7 vs. 7 tournament If you were leading such a team, where would you play everybody, and by how much would we beat the uga site’s staff team?

I like this question. I'm an offensive guy, so we'll line up that way. Also, I haven't met half of you in person and have to do a little speculating as to how we'll fit in together. Let's see...

Position Author Why
QB Matt Mills Athletic and experience with playing the game.
BB Doug Walker A clear understanding of what it takes to make it in the pros obviously starts at B-Back.
AB Luke Fort A former baseball player, so basically Roddy Jones.
AB Grant Heffley The perfect spot for a young gun.
WR Cade Lawson Apparently like 8 feet tall or something.
WR Tyler Duke He goes to Kennesaw State, so he's probably more athletic than most of us.
LT Wes Simms Full of enthusiasm for going to get linebackers.
LG MagnaCarterGT He'd miss a block about as often as he misses a joke.
C Joey Weaver I'm short and stout with an understanding of the offense.
RG Ben Tankersley My right-hand man around here.
RT Brandon Godwin Rangy enough to do sports and social media simultaneously? Rangy enough to play tackle.
Coordinator orientalnc The wisest of us all.
Waterboy Nate Muller The thought of it makes me laugh. He'd also probably bring beer instead of water.
Cheerleader Atlanta's original team [Submitted without comment.]

Is it a lack of coaching or is it the youth and lack of depth causing us to stutter step?

I really don't think coaching is the issue. It never has been one under Johnson, except with an individual unit or two at isolated times. What we're seeing on the large scale is a result of the second -- youth and lack of depth. Trust me: college football teams get better throughout the season just as a general rule, but this one will be noticeably better by mid-November. Sure, the players of every other team are also getting experience, but I think that experience has diminishing returns as it continues to accrue. This young team should see some really noticeable improvement by the end of ACC play. (If it doesn't, that's indicative of the first option you brought up.)

Every year I wait for the VT game because it tells me if we are going to be a 9+ win team or 6-7 win team. Am I the only ga tech fan who puts this much emphasis on this game?

Nope. I think the Virginia Tech game is actually a pretty good litmus test for a season. They're a good team, but they're never just miles ahead of us. I think we're actually fairly comparable on a program level of where we sit in the college football landscape from a competitiveness standpoint. And sure, someone in the comments is going to be outraged by this and start throwing around historical records and how they're obviously better than we are and blah blah blah...that's not really what I'm talking about. I just think that in the Paul Johnson era, we've both been competitive in almost every game we've played, win or lose. I can only think of a couple of instances where we were run right out of a stadium, and the same goes for them. That, not to mention that last year was the first time anyone but the two of us represented our division in the ACC Championship Game. Basically, if we're going to look back and say that we've had a noticeably successful year, it's going to more than likely mean that we've beaten Virginia Tech (in this season, or any).

Thanks to everyone for the great questions! Hope you enjoyed the responses. We'll be back next week for more.