While spring games are typically uneventful, this year’s game marked the beginning of a new chapter of Georgia Tech football. A record 21,194 fans came out to Bobby Dodd Stadium on April 26th for Georgia Tech’s first spring game under new head coach Geoff Collins. For many fans, there seems to be a rekindled excitement around Georgia Tech football after the retirement of 11-year head coach Paul Johnson and his polarizing flexbone offense. Whether you loved it or hated it, CPJ’s flexbone certainly gave the program some truly unforgettable moments and lasting memories. The Jackets used the first play of the spring game to give one final tribute to Paul Johnson and his flexbone system before introducing fans to the future of Georgia Tech football.
The 12- yard completion to Tyler Cooksey instantly fired up the crowd - the play marked the first reception by a Georgia Tech tight end since November 24, 2007. It was an exciting moment in a night that showcased a wide range of plays and formations that have been absent from The Flats for over a decade. The offensive unit still has a lot of work to do before the Jackets open the season against Clemson on August 29th, but for now let’s take a look at some of the positive takeaways from this year’s memorable spring game.
New Concept: Mesh
Tons of new offensive concepts are coming to The Flats, and over the course of the season we’ll take a closer look at several of these new concepts as we all embrace the Air Raid system. Today now we’ll focus on the mesh concept, which was pointed out early in the game by our very own film analyst, Kieffer Milligan. The defining feature of a mesh concept is two receivers running crossing routes over the middle of the field. The crossing receivers quickly read whether the defense is playing man or zone coverage and modify their routes accordingly: against zone coverage, the receivers cut their routes short and sit underneath in soft areas, while against man coverage the receivers continue their routes across the field.
We can see the Mesh concept in action on the Gold team’s second offensive play. Gold comes out in a Shotgun Bunch formation, and wide receivers Malachi Carter and Jalen Camp run crosses over the middle. The defense is playing a zone, and you can see both receivers slow down to break off their routes when they recognize the zone coverage. Meanwhile, quarterback Lucas Johnson scans the field from right to left, sees the linebackers sitting in their zones, and checks down to running back Jordan Mason for a 7-yard gain. While the play itself was nothing special, it’s great to see new offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude implementing these Air Raid schemes, and there’s no doubt that after a full offseason of practice we should see more complexity from the offense during the regular season.
One of the most exciting aspects of the spring game was the wide variety of formations that Tech employed on offense. For now we’ll look at two of those formations and how they can be utilized in an Air Raid attack: Shotgun Trips and Shotgun Split Slot.
A classic formation used across all levels of football is Shotgun Trips. It consists of three receivers lined up on the same side of the field, one running back, and one tight end on the side opposite the receivers. Shotgun Trips is an absolute headache for the coverage unit and requires perfect communication mid-play to properly defend. With three receivers on one side, the offense can dial up any combination of screens, outs, wheels, and crosses to tangle up the defense. The formation also is quite effective when paired with designed quarterback roll outs (as Tech fans have unfortunately experienced firsthand), and it can also punish overly-aggressive defenses with a delayed backside screen to the tight end.
Shotgun Split Slot
The Shotgun Split Slot formation uses three receivers and two halfbacks, which adds a whole new dimension for the offense. Most of Tech’s halfbacks are converted A-backs who spent equal time over the last several years practicing rushing, receiving, and blocking. That skill set can be perfectly utilized in this two-back set where both running backs are a threat to take a handoff, lead block, or go out for a pass. Play action passes out of Shotgun Split Slot can be extremely effective, and you can even have one of the running backs fake being a lead blocker before darting upfield to catch a pass. The options out of Shotgun Split Slot are endless, and I hope the Jackets use it consistently as one of their base formations.
All of Georgia Tech’s healthy quarterbacks got a decent number of snaps in the spring game, but it was clear that the battle for the starting position is between Lucas Johnson and James Graham. There’s certainly a chance that Tobias Oliver (who missed the spring game due to injury) could compete for the starting job, but based on his passing performance last season he may have an uphill battle ahead of him. For now we’ll look at how Johnson and Graham compare as quarterbacks and what they both need to work on as we head into summer practice.
Lucas Johnson had a solid day passing the ball, which feels odd to say about a Georgia Tech quarterback. While he didn’t exactly light up the defense, he did an excellent job going through his progressions and settling for high-percentage passes, finishing the day 12-of-16 passing for 87 yards and a touchdown. His best throw of the night came on a 19-yard back-shoulder pass to Malachi Carter. Johnson recognized the single-man coverage on the outside and threw the pass early enough that by the time the defender turned his head around, the ball was already in the receiver’s hands. Ideally the ball should be thrown a little further outside, but the timing was so perfect that the placement just needed to be good enough.
James Graham is an entirely different kind of passer, and with his first two throws of the night he showed that he isn’t afraid to attack the defense downfield. On his first pass, he connected with receiver Adonicas Sanders on a short post in tight man coverage for a 15-yard gain.
On the very next play, Graham hit Sanders again on a go route for a 39-yard touchdown. Graham’s throws were exciting and electric, but also demonstrated his much riskier style of play. His aggressiveness though the air worked out early, but ultimately led to an overall poor passing performance: after his first two completions, Graham went just 1-of-7 passing for 3 yards (we’re excluding his completion to Joe Hamilton for -3 yards). His performance showed why he’s currently the backup behind Lucas Johnson - his combination of inconsistent accuracy and occasional poor decision making means his turnover risk is far too high. On one play in the 3rd Quarter he was forced out of the pocket towards the right sideline, and instead of throwing the ball away he chose to throw into double coverage. As long as Graham makes these mistakes, he’ll continue to be the backup. However, if he can improve his accuracy and show a greater willingness to use his check-downs, then the sky truly is the limit for him.
Despite being recruited for a flexbone offense, Lucas Johnson looked very much like a traditional pocket passer during the spring game, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Johnson rushed two times for four yards (excluding sacks) and it was clear that he prioritized going through his reads and hitting his check downs over scrambling. It was an excellent sign that he’s fully embracing his role as a more traditional quarterback, and it should also minimize his injury risk this season. Johnson also showed great instincts with defenders in his face by sliding feet-first to avoid contact, something we haven’t seen from a Georgia Tech quarterback in quite a while.
As was the case in the passing game, James Graham’s running game is much more aggressive than Johnson’s. Graham recorded four rushes for 34 yards (excluding sacks) and showed off his elite athleticism in the process. His best run of the night was a 17-yard touchdown scramble in which he progressed through his reads, stepped up in the pocket, and followed a blocker into the endzone. Tucking and running was the correct decision on this play, but the challenge for him this season will be to not automatically take off running the first moment he senses any pressure in the pocket.
Starting Quarterback Prediction
I’m fairly confident that Lucas Johnson will be Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback in Week 1. In the spring game he made smart decisions, took what the defense gave him, and looked confident running the offense. He might not create many highlight-reel plays, but Johnson looks proficient at finding open receivers and keeping the chains moving. On the other hand, James Graham showed signs of both greatness and immaturity. He still has a lot to work on, but if he can improve his accuracy and develop a slightly more risk-averse play style, Graham possesses the raw talent to potentially develop into a superstar quarterback. Regardless of who starts this season, it will be fun to watch the development of all our quarterbacks this year as they continue to learn the Air Raid offense.
We still have 112 days until the season opener, but fans have good reason to be excited about the direction Geoff Collins is taking the program. Collins has fully embraced the “404” culture and his enthusiasm is apparent to fans and recruits alike. The Jackets have even momentarily passed Georgia in the 2020 recruiting rankings (it won’t last, but it’s still worth celebrating). While it’s important to keep our expectations low in the first year of a major scheme transformation, the new system and new culture definitely seem to indicate that things are trending upwards for Georgia Tech football.