What the season’s annual spring game lacked in traditional monsoon-like weather conditions and random Twitter users counting fans in the stands was easily made up for by revelations about the way Paul Johnson’s 2018 Yellow Jackets will look on the field. The final score was 24-14 in favor of Lucas Johnson and the blue team, but the real revelations came in the form of new personnel assignments within Nate Woody’s 3-4 defense and a sneak peek at some of the new faces who figure to play a big role this season. Some notes, for your speculating pleasure:
1. We’ll have to wait to see the incumbent starters play.
Taquon Marshall was a late scratch due to illness, leaving redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver to quarterback the white team and redshirt sophomore Lucas Johnson to lead team blue. Marshall has little left to prove after his strong 2017 season, but it would have been nice to see how he operated with the new faces on the blue offensive line.
Other key players out included guard Parker Braun, center Kenny Cooper, tackle Andrew Marshall, safety A.J. Gray, defensive back Jalen Johnson, defensive lineman Desmond Branch (family event), and defensive lineman T.K. Chimedza. In his postgame comments, Paul Johnson indicated that only Cooper will miss significant time due to injury as he comes off of a surgery with a three-month recovery time. The rest should be ready for the season with time to spare.
2. Clinton Lynch is back to full speed.
Lynch finished the game with 3 carries for 28 yards and 1 reception for a 33-yard touchdown from Lucas Johnson, but watching him run made it clear that he is back at 100% after dealing with injuries for much of last season. He said as much in his postgame interview, indicating that he was finally feeling healthy again. Lynch also made a few impressive blocks in addition to his work as a ball carrier, driving defensive backs down the field on more than one occasion. His contributions across the board will be critical to the team’s success in 2018.
3. Jahaziel Lee the center?
One of the surprises from the game was that Jahaziel Lee, formerly a left tackle, has been playing at center following the injury to Kenny Cooper. It is incredibly hard to criticize his performance when you consider that he’s been playing the postion for all of three days now, but he showed growth over the course of the game and made some really nice plays in run blocking. There were a couple of occasions where he appeared to miss an assignment (though it’s hard to tell without the benefit of replay) and a few other times when team white’s Kyle Cerge-Henderson or Chris Martin would get past him, but Lee’s was an overall encouraging performance given the brevity of his time at center. There were no bad snaps either, which is another great detail.
4. Offensive line depth may be sparse.
Though Jahaziel Lee was a bright spot for team blue, little else went right for either side’s offensive line. Keep in mind that the majority of the likely starters didn’t play due to injury, but run blocking was all-around ugly. The main contributors for the white team were, from left to right, Hamp Gibbs, Connor Hansen, Scott Morgan, Mikey Minihan, and Jack DeFoor during the early goings with Chet Lagod also playing some at center. They struggled as a unit, resulting in 7 punts by white and only 182 yards of total offense in the game.
Blue featured Zach Quinney at left tackle, Charlie Clark at left guard, Jahaziel Lee at center, Brad Morgan at right guard, and Bailey Ivemeyer at right tackle. Though this entire unit outplayed the white team, I was most encouraged by the performances of Bailey Ivemeyer (who pancaked 284-pound Chris Martin, among other things) and Zach Quinney, who had an up-and-down game but handled the difficult position of tackle well overall.
Ole Miss transfer Jack DeFoor, whose status for 2018 is still up in the air due to NCAA transfer rules in the midst of the ongoing moral issues in Oxford, still has work to do if he’s going to play tackle four months from now. Learning the system in the brief time he’s been around would be a challenge, but he did miss some blocks in the spring game and looked a bit lost at times. There’s no doubt that he has the talent to succeed, so give him some more time to gain his footing.
5. Nate Woody’s 3-4 defense looks like an encouraging fit for the current defensive linemen.
Were the players on this roster recruited to play in a 3-4 scheme? No, and that’s clear from the options we see at outside linebacker. However, the performances by Tech’s nose tackles and defensive ends was impressive to say the least.
Team blue has by far the strongest defensive line unit, with Brandon Adams at nose tackle and Brentavious Glanton and Antwan Owens slotting in beside him. Adams has been a strong player since his arrival and will be absolutely critical to the success of Nate Woody’s defense as the likely starter at NT. Glanton has been a question mark all spring, testing out nose tackle and other positions while looking for a good fit, but looked comfortable at defensive end. Antwan Owens was a standout, logging 6 tackles at defensive end. Quick for 270+ pounds, Owens in particular looks tailor-made for the scheme and should have an instant impact as a sophomore.
Don’t forget the white team! Kyle Cerge-Henderson played nose tackle for much of the game and is somewhat undersized for the position, but garnered praise from Paul Johnson after a strong performance to cap off a solid spring. Anree Saint-Amour logged time at defensive end but had an overall quiet game after putting up 32 tackles and 2.5 sacks last year. The team’s depth at nose tackle and defensive end should be much stronger than in years past. Add T.K. Chimedza and Desmond Branch into the mix and we could have a solid unit.
6. Inside linebackers are looking strong.
Brant Mitchell was a man among boys, routinely finding himself in the backfield and logging 6 tackles while being a generally disruptive presence for white. Team blue’s duo of Jacksons (Tre and JaQuez) was equally impressive, combining for 14 tackles and showing strong speed and tackling ability. There still isn’t much depth at the position, but a starting lineup of Brant Mitchell and one of JaQuez Jackson or Tre Jackson will get the job done. That’s especially true if JaQuez, who enrolled at Tech in January, continues developing as quickly as he has to this point.
7. Outside linebacker might make or break this team.
There were a number of guys who played snaps at OLB during the game, but few of them looked fully ready. That’s to be expected when you consider that many of them are converted safeties or guys who have played their entire careers in Ted Roof’s 4-3 scheme, but there needs to be someone able to produce at the position.
The only veteran who played significant time there was Vic Alexander. He was not recruited for that position and doesn’t have the optimal length among other things but still managed to finish with 4 tackles. Other OLB appearances included sophomore Tariq Carpenter, a converted safety who had an impressive run to the backfield at one point, Charlie Thomas (another converted safety who played well), and Jaquan Henderson (the standout of the group). Safety Gentry Bonds made a somewhat surprise appearance at OLB as well, playing there consistently.
8. King and Harvin showed out on special teams.
That’s easy to say when there were no kickoff or punt returns, but still. Pressley Harvin is a stud who averaged 42 yards per punt on 11 opportunities and will continue to hold down the position this season.
Placekicker Brenton King hit his only field goal opportunity from 40 yards, showing clear improvement from last season. Consistency from that position will be key in 2018 after the struggles we saw a season ago.
9. The B-Backs will be excellent if the offensive line allows them to be.
We all know what to expect from Kirvonte Benson: strong running and good balance. He proved once again that he’s a great player and that won’t change. What we did learn, however, is that Jerry Howard and Jordan Ponchez-Mason are growing as players in their own rights. Howard in particular was very impressive, averaging just shy of 5 yards per carry while running behind the iffy white offensive line. Ponchez-Mason averaged just 3.1 yards per carry but managed to find the end zone as well to cap off a nice performance.
10. Lucas Johnson and Tobias Oliver look exciting.
Though it will be tough for either to challenge Taquon Marshall, Lucas Johnson and Tobias Oliver should make you excited about the future of the quarterback position. Johnson missed a few throws but also hit a wide-open Brad Stewart on three occasions. His passing night was capped off with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Clinton Lynch in the end zone the was squeezed in perfectly over the head of Avery Showell.
Oliver, meanwhile, looked elusive and explosive. His passing still needs some work, but it seems that he has a strong grasp on the offense and may well have played even better behind a more cohesive offensive line. There’s no doubting his athletic ability, so hopefully he can see the field at some point this year.
There was a lot to learn from the spring game give how many changes were made this offseason, and it largely lived up to the billing. There are still plenty of questions which will only be answered after week one, but we did receive at least some clarity on everything from assignments to injuries from the spring. The 2017 season was rough, but there’s plenty to look forward to in 2018... including new fonts!