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The Upper North Perspective: Concerns and Optimism

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The Perspective takes a look at what created concern and optimism in the win over Boston College.

Concerns and Optimism

Welcome to the first in-season edition of The Upper North Perspective!

What a first game that was for the Yellow Jackets! There were some ups and downs, but the game ended with the only result that truly matters. There are a lot of teams in the country that would love the chance to say they are 1-0 (1-0) this week instead of 0-1.

However, we all watched the same game, and I think we can all agree that there are just as many things to be concerned about as there are to be optimistic. Coach Johnson’s comments since the game ended have done nothing to dissuade any negative notions that are out there currently.

Today, I want to take a look at some causes for concern going forward with the 2016 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and why there are still reasons to maintain the optimism moving forward. There are points on both sides of the spectrum, and remember, as CPJ always says, things are never as good or as bad as they seem.

Reasons for Concern

Too often during this game against Boston College it seemed that the offense and defense were struggling with the basics. There were too many alignment and assignment miscues on the defensive side of the ball. Tackling and finishing seemed to be a real struggle for a lot of members on the defensive side. Georgia Tech is not a team that can out-athlete every team that it plays against, so doing the little things by staying in lanes and wrapping up to finish tackles are a necessity for this team. Simply staying in alignment and keeping the correct assignments will help to correct this.

To continue with the defense, there were opportunities to finish plays in the opponent’s backfield, but they kept allowing Boston College to make something out of nothing with missed tackles or overplaying angles. It was these out of position or over-pursuits that sustained drives for the BC offense. There were some untimely penalties in the passing game as well, Corey Griffin’s pass interference comes to mind, and that affected the defense.

On the offensive side, some of the basics of the offense that should never be missed kept getting blown. Tech had backs going the wrong way, missing the pre-snap motions, and not keeping pitch relationship. These are small things that should not be missed and show a lack of concentration and confidence that are concerning moving forward.

The run blocking from the offensive line and A-backs on the perimeter are also concerning. Run blocking felt a lot like last year. There were too many times that guards were not getting to the key or offensive linemen were not taking anyone at all. The same goes for our A-back blocking. There were some obvious exceptions to this. A play that stands out is from the third quarter when Qua Searcy and Isiah Willis both threw out crushing blocks that got Marcus Marshall on the edge. Unfortunately, that was one of the only plays that really stood out for blocking on the perimeter. It truly is no surprise that three spots on the offensive line, both guards and a tackle, and one spot at A-back are undecided on the depth chart going into the Mercer game.

We are also left questioning if the offense is really that bad this year. If the last drive had not happened, I think the majority of the week’s conversation would be about this. Is this the same group that struggled so much in 2015? For stretches of the Boston College game, it really did feel like we were watching that same group. How much of last Saturday was about simply playing the best defense in the country in 2016? This is the question I will be waiting to see answered over the next few weeks.

Lastly, Coach Johnson’s comments are something I try to parse to evaluate where the team stands overall. Going into the season, CPJ was extremely positive and confident about where the team was, but after game one, CPJ is openly disappointed with how the team performed. To sum it up, he questioned the ability of the coaching staff and of the team to not revert back to 2015 form. Could this simply be a motivational tactic to get the coaching staff and team marching in the right direction? I hope so, but it is something to monitor moving forward.

Reasons for Optimism

Starting with the defense, I actually enjoyed what I saw from the defensive backs for the most part. Yes, there are still some alignment concerns, but I thought we saw some quality play from the Austin twins and Step Durham. Corey Griffin and AJ Gray also played well enough.

The lack of finishing is a concern, but it is also positive how often the defense was in the right place to make a play. I do not have the number handy, but the defense got plenty of pressures on Towles. If they could just finish the deal on half of those pressures, we will be looking at a top defense in the sack category at the end of the year. It is a negative that the team could not finish these pressures, but it is positive to see the team there so often.

It also seemed the opportunistic nature that defined the 2014 group was back in full force against Boston College. The defense forced three turnovers in the game and gave the offense extra possessions for a chance to succeed. The turnover margin is one of the most important things to win each game, so it was great to see this group capitalize on opportunities again.

Qua Searcy’s playmaking ability was a MAJOR bright spot. He blocked well for the most part, and he made plays when it mattered most. None of these plays were more crucial than the catch on 4th and 19 to keep the game alive for Tech. His play in week one earned him a starting spot going into Mercer.

Dedrick Mills had some ups and down during his first collegiate game, but he still has the vote of confidence from Coach Johnson after scoring the winning TD against BC. He even managed to drop the “OR” with Marcus Marshall on the depth chart. Mills had a fumble, but he bounced back and carried the ball well late in the game against a very tough defense. CPJ has described him as a player that self corrects and learns from his mistakes. His development is a major point of optimism.

would be remiss if I did not comment on the pass blocking from the offensive line. Ron West and Mike Sewak redesigned and recommitted to the pass blocking for the offensive line group, and they responded positively. Justin Thomas repeatedly had time to see the field and make quality throws. We would not have won the ball game without the solid effort in pass pro.

Justin Thomas delivered a performance that inspired fans and teammates. His full game was not the strongest effort we have seen from him, but he was effective in the passing game. The most important part was the leadership that he displayed and his positive body language during the contest. He did not allow his teammates to get down and inspired them when it mattered most. Without this leadership, GT does not drive to score the winning TD in that game. The clutch gene that Justin used to inspire us all in 2014 was back in this game. His leadership and confidence will drive this team. He is clearly the leader.

That leads into my most optimistic point. I know Coach Johnson keeps comparing this game to the Notre Dame game from 2015 to describe how unprepared this group was, but I would compare it to a couple of different games. This game seemed eerily similar to two early 2014 games against Virginia Tech and, to a lesser extent, Georgia Southern. At that point in 2014, the team was still searching for its full identity and had plenty of uneven performances. The gameflow from start to finish was very much like the 2014 VT game, but the clutch performance late from this group of Yellow Jackets was reminiscent of the group that delivered wins late against both VT and GSU. This is just something to think about.

Closing

Obviously, this was just the first game of the season, and there is a lot still out there to learn. The most important points to take home after game one? Georgia Tech is 1-0 in 2016. The Jackets got their first conference win of the season in the first week of the season. The team found a way to win in a hard-fought game in a tough environment overseas against the number one defense from 2015. I think we all knew going into this game that it would play out similar to how it did with the defensive struggle. Tech finished that defensive struggle strong on a national stage and won a game that would have been lost in 2015. That is key for the development of confidence for this group.

Going into next week, the first two quarters of the Mercer game will tell a lot. How this team responds will go a long way in terms of letting the fans know where this group is going. The team is being publicly challenged by CPJ, and I, for one, cannot wait to see how this group responds to that challenge.