Key Position Battles: Quarterback
Despite the season opener loss to Tennessee, it seemed the Yellow Jackets had found their man to replace their other-worldly, 3-year starter in Justin Thomas. TaQuon Marshall took over the offense on one of the biggest stages in football in the Chickfila Kickoff Game, and casually rushed for 249 yards and 5 touchdowns, while completing 5/9 passes for 120 yards.
Marshall quickly showed off his passing ability with this beautiful touch pass on an early 3rd and long conversion when Tennessee was sitting back in pass coverage.
Despite the hot start against Tennessee and then the Yellow Jackets winning 4 of their next 5 games, Marshall and the team would chill over the course of the season. Marshall would finish the season completing an abysmal 37% of his passes with 10 TDs and 5 INTs. He would go on to lead the team in rushing with 1,146 yards, but the Ramblin’ Wreck would go on to lose the last 4 of 5 games of the season, culminating in a 5-6 record.
Georgia Tech lost four games last year in which they had at least a 10 point lead at some point. While the onus for those losses is certainly not on Marshall, the offense turned stagnant in games when defenses realized they didn’t have to respect him as a passer. In losses against Miami, Virginia, and Duke, Marshall went 12/32 passing with 3 TDs and 3 INTs... if we throw in the games against the top defenses of Clemson and Georgia, those numbers get decidedly worse.
Despite his passing woes, Marshall proved to be very capable at running the ground game portion of this offense, which is admittedly by far the most important part. You can see his highlight reel below.
Marshall showed an ability to make the correct reads, adjust the play at the line, and the ability to get the tough yards as a runner. However, he seemed to be in his own head when pitching left. and he held the ball several times when he should’ve made the pitch with his opposite hand.
The above begs the tough questions - is 2017 the ceiling for Marshall? Does he have the ability to improve his passing game in order to open up the offense, even with the loss of his #1 receiver in Ricky Jeune? Or will defenses realize early that the threat of the downfield pass doesn’t exist, and they can make the offense one-dimensional by loading the box?
Waiting in the wings for his turn at the helm of the flexbone is 6’3” Lucas Johnson. The redshirt sophomore will be entering his 3rd year in the offense and has showed all of the skills necessary to be successful in it. He seems to have a much higher upside than Marshall, but he doesn’t have the game experience that the incumbent starter has.
Johnson passed for 143 yards at the helm of the 1st team offense in the spring game. He seemed to be adept at making the correct option reads, though he was running a limited offense in the spring. He also showed the agility and foot speed to make people miss, and the improvisational skills to redeem broken plays and make free defenders miss. Johnson might be the best passer Paul Johnson has ever had in this offense as you will see from the below video... but passing comes secondary here on The Flats.
The 2018 Yellow Jacket offense returns almost everyone, but that “everyone” went 5-6 last season. Will the offensive line improve and have any depth? Will a new #1 receiver step into the void left by Ricky Jeune? All of these things effect quarterback play. This is a team sport, after all.
Unless Johnson absolutely dazzles in fall camp and practice, I would not expect him to usurp Marshall and become the starter come opening weekend against Alcorn State. Marshall has too much valuable experience to not give him the shot opening week.
I would expect to see Johnson playing pretty quickly in cleanup duty if the Yellow Jackets blow out their first 2 opponents of Alcorn State and South Florida, or maybe even being sent out for an early drive or two in order to gain meaningful game experience.
However, if Marshall continues to struggle to hit open receivers or make pitches when plays run left, I would think he’s on a much shorter leash this season. It wouldn’t surprise to see Johnson spell Marshall for a series if the offense is struggling early in the early games, or even overtake him for the starting position as the season progresses and the defenses get tougher. The Clemson game in week 4 looms large and might be where we learn who the starter will be the rest of the season after opening with 3 lesser-talented teams... Sorry, Pitt.
65 Days to Kickoff