The quarterbacks and defensive lines took center stage in Tech’s 2017 spring game, and a dramatic finish saw the Gold team—featuring the first-team defense and second-team offense—score a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull out a 21-16 victory over the White squad.
White led 16-7 entering the final quarter, but redshirt freshman quarterback Lucas Johnson led the Gold offense on a 15-play touchdown drive, capping it with a 23-yard pass to Xavier Gantt on a wheel route and cutting the lead to 16-14. After the Gold defense forced a punt with just under two minutes left, redshirt junior Chase Martenson took over at quarterback; on the first play of the drive, he connected with B-back Brady Swilling on the left sideline, and Swilling took it to the house for a 61-yard touchdown to gave Gold the lead. Redshirt freshman Jay Jones tried to lead the White offense downfield in the final minute, but he was picked off by safety A.J. Gray on the final play of the game, sealing the Gold victory.
A few storylines rose to the forefront as the game played out:
This was the biggest area of interest heading into the game. With Matthew Jordan out, junior TaQuon Marshall started for the White team and was spelled early and often by Jones, while Johnson started for Gold with Martenson getting the occasional series.
Johnson and Jones made the biggest splash. The former scored the game’s first touchdown on the longest play of the day, when good blocks by B-back Quaide Weimerskirch and a receiver downfield sprung Johnson for a 70-yard score. He finished 7-for-13 for 69 yards through the air, frequently having to throw it away thanks to constant pressure from the White defensive front against a patchwork offensive line. Still, he was accurate when he had time to set his feet, and his late touchdown to Gantt was a perfectly placed touch pass.
Jones had runs of 56 and 33 yards and showed elusiveness both in the backfield and in the open field. He finished the day with 13 carries for 81 yards. In the passing game, he faced frequent pressure on dropbacks as well and often had to scramble to escape, so he had just six pass attempts. Most of his incompletions were overthrows (which if nothing else showed off his arm strength), but he did make a great on-the-run throw on the run to A-back J.J. Green on the final drive that Green turned into a 29-yard gain. While Jones had some big plays, he also had two fumbles—one recovered by the Gold defense—and an interception in the final seconds.
Marshall split first-team action with Jones fairly evenly; he finished the day 4-for-9 for 37 yards through the air and had 38 yards on 12 carries. His longest run was a 19-yard scamper one play after he took a bruising hit on a sack. Martenson only played a couple series, but his touchdown pass to Swilling was perhaps the biggest play of the game.
Marshall is officially the No. 1 QB with Jordan out, but both of the freshmen looked more than capable of pushing their way up the depth chart. Look for option read accuracy to be a major deciding factor in how the competition plays out in the months ahead, particularly with respect to knowing when to pitch. We didn’t see much of that this evening—between tosses and option pitches, the A-backs across both teams had only 10 total carries.
OL Struggles / DL Effectiveness
As the previous section suggested, the biggest challenge for all four quarterbacks was simply finding time to throw (and, in some cases, room to run). Both the White and Gold offensive lines struggled in pass protection, often letting one or more defenders run free to the quarterback.
The defensive linemen were disruptive even otherwise, though. Desmond Branch, who started at defensive tackle for Gold’s first-team defense, was a constant presence in White’s backfield. He finished the game with five tackles and a sack, but his impact stretched well beyond his stat line, as he frequently flushed Marshall and Jones from the pocket before it had even had time to develop. Antonio Simmons was also disruptive for the Gold line, adding a pair of sacks and one more tackle for loss.
On the White side, Tyler Merriweather was all over the field. He got a good push up front in the pass rush, but he also showed an ability to disengage and attack the ballcarrier on the edge. Take it with a grain of salt, because he was working against the second-team offensive line, but Merriweather could be a useful reserve at a position that needs more depth.
The whole situation was a prime example of how spring games can be hard to parse—were the offensive lines struggling or the defensive fronts doing well?—but in this case, it seemed to be a bit of both. Then again, offensive line struggles are hardly a new thing for Tech spring games, so there’s probably no reason to worry.
Dedrick Mills had four carries, one of which was a bruising 17-yard run on White’s opening drive. Nothing to see here. He’ll be the starter on Labor Day if he’s healthy.
So instead, the spotlight fell on his backups, redshirt sophomores KirVonte Benson (White) and Quaide Weimerskirch (Gold). Benson flashed a good combination of speed and power, bursting for 35 yards on an early White drive and breaking tackles on several of his runs, including his five-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. He finished the day with nine carries for 57 yards. Weimerskirch is more of a pure power runner, but he also showed some pass-catching ability out of the backfield, as Johnson found him on a pair of screen passes.
The biggest B-back play of the day was Swilling’s 61-yard catch-and-run. The former walk-on quarterback had plenty of room to run after his reception and managed to dodge a few defenders as he reached the goal line. He’s still behind the other three on the depth chart, but nevertheless, it was a great play by a pair of former walk-ons who have been with the program for several years.
- Brant Mitchell was a force for the Gold defense, recording seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble. If Branch wasn’t wreaking havoc in the backfield, Mitchell probably was. He still needs to improve in coverage, but he should be very capable in run support.
- Jalen Camp had a solid day as White’s top receiver for most of the game. He didn’t have any game-changing catches—he finished with four receptions for 44 yards—but he showed an ability to use his size to his advantage when positioning himself for the catch, and he had some good downfield blocks in the run game.
- Xavier Gantt had three receptions for 44 yards. He’s buried at a deep position at the moment, but he looks like a promising talent going forward.
Mercifully, there weren’t a ton of injuries, but Tech didn’t escape the game completely cleanly. Linebacker David Curry appeared to suffer a knee injury in the first quarter and had to be helped off the field. Two projected starters, offensive guard Will Bryan and receiver Brad Stewart, also went down with early injuries and sat out the remainder of the game. Finally, redshirt freshman receiver Jair Hawkins-Anderson seemed to injure his knee in the fourth quarter, but he was able to walk off under his own power. So far there’s no word on the severity of the injuries, but with luck they’ll all be back relatively soon.