Tomorrow night, Georgia Tech fans get a look at the 2021 Yellow Jacket football team, as GT hosts a spring game for the first time in two years. Season ticket holders who requested spring game tickets by last Friday are welcome to come in person, and any current student can show up to Gate 7 for admission starting at 5 PM. For the rest of us, the game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network at 6 PM.
**Edited to add GT’s Thursday afternoon announcement about the format: The game will be comprised of two 15-minute halves of high-energy action, with Tech’s offense squaring off against the Yellow Jackets’ defense. Points scored when freshman quarterbacks Jeff Sims or Chayden Peery are leading the offense will be credited to the Gold “team.” Points scored when sophomore Demetrius Knight or redshirt freshman Jordan Yates are quarterbacking the offense will be credited to the White “team.” Conversely, any defensive points scored against the offense when Sims or Peery are at QB will go on the White’s tally, while defensive points scored with Knight or Yates at the helm of the offense will be a part of the Gold’s total.
For all those planning to attend or tune in, I must remind you: DON’T READ TOO MUCH INTO SPRING GAMES!
But do enjoy it, and keep in mind areas that will be key if GT is to take the desired steps forward this fall. As a guide to help you watch carefully, I want to give you five questions to consider that are based off of needed areas of improvement that we identified in our 2020 Advanced Stats Review of the Defense and Offense.
1. Are GT’s defensive ends generating pressure without called blitzes?
We’ve talked extensively over the past year about GT’s struggles to generate pressure and havoc plays on defense. Despite the transfer out of Curtis Ryans, the 2021 roster will have the deepest room of defensive ends since Geoff Collins arrived. Jordan Domineck has proved himself to be the highest end pass rusher of the group, but Jared Ivey and Kyle Kennard showed flashes in their true freshmen seasons, Joshua Robinson has turned heads as an early enrollee, Kevin Harris has been exuberant in talking about his experience so far at GT, and Antonneous Clayton has finally been able to focus on football. Sylvain Yondjouen has shown great promise as well but has really struggled with injuries since arriving on campus, and I’m very excited about the yet-to-arrive transfer Keion White.
This group must be the foundation of GT’s progress in pressure and havoc. Lack of disruption has been the achilles heel of the GT defense. Havoc rate and pressure rate were all below average levels last season, and the GT defense paid a price for that, giving up much more efficient offense when those rates went down. An absolute must for 2021 will be the development of a consistent disruptor. My money is on Jordan Domineck, but I look forward to seeing if anyone else shows that promise tomorrow night.
2. Are the linebackers in the right place in terms of their run fits and pass coverage responsibilities?
The linebacker position is marked by great uncertainty entering 2021, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. David Curry chose to move on from GT after his sixth season, and his departure removed some stability but also a limited upside at the linebacker position. Right now, it seems most likely that Quez Jackson and Ace Ebey (transfer in from Maryland) will start at linebacker, with Charlie Thomas, Khatavian Franks, and Trinilyas Tatum competing for significant reps as well. Sad news came on Tuesday when Tyson Meiguez announced that he tore his ACL, and he is likely to miss the entire 2021 season.
Quez played quite well in pass coverage last season but struggled against the run. Charlie Thomas excels in rushing the quarterback. The other three guys are largely unknown in a game context. Can Coach Thacker find the right complementary pieces? The defensive play calling needs to do a better job of matching aggressive calls with the right personnel. To grow our disruption numbers, more blitzing is needed, but it has to come from the right place. My hope is to see blitzing coming from players like Khatavian Franks, Trenilyas Tatum, and Charlie Thomas, with the aim of getting athletic guys who can avoid blockers into the backfield. But the play to play consistency in fitting run gaps and covering short zones can’t be overlooked. Which of the linebackers can be most consistent?
3. Is Jeff Sims accurate, especially on throws more than 10 yards down the field?
It’s exciting to start a true freshman, and it’s even more exciting when that guy enters his second season as the presumed starter who is ready to make a leap forward. Jeff Sims has encouraging tools in his arm strength and elite athleticism. But he’s not yet proved himself to be a good quarterback . In the “And/Or” framework we’ve mentioned several times, QB is the ultimate example of an “Or” position. You need one guy, and he can change everything.
For Jeff Sims, one of the striking statistical things we noted from 2020 is that his completion percentage over expectation decreased as his average depth of target went up. The same relationship holds when we look at the effect of ADOT for Sims’s passing success rate and EPA/pass. He did not excel throwing the ball down the field. We need better quarterback play, particularly more accuracy on throws down the field. I’ll be watching and tracking how effective he is on those throws tomorrow night to gauge what kind of improvement we might expect this fall.
4. Is the interior of the offensive line consistently able to hold their ground and prevent immediate disruption?
Although Kenneth Kirby is yet to arrive on campus, it appears that Devin Cochran and Jordan Williams will man the two tackle positions this fall. If Kirby is able to beat out Williams, that speaks well to his abilities. The interior of the offensive line still has questions. So far, Mikey Minihan and Ryan Johnson have been getting starting reps at Center and RG respectively, but Brent Key has been trying quite a few different combinations amongst the interior of the line, which shows that no one has yet proved themselves at LG, C, or RG.
At the most recent open practice, Paulo Vaipulo got starting reps at LG, Austin Smith has gotten starting looks at LG and C, and Weston Franklin is a true freshman pushing for time. Nick Pendley has been hurt for much of the spring game but could end up grabbing the LG position. The question marks remain in an area of the offense that struggled mightily in 2020. Offensive line is an “And” position. Weak links sink the ship. The big question will be whether the interior of the line minimizes the disaster plays that really hurt the offense last season. We’ll be watching for that consistency tomorrow night.
5. Do you see one wide receiver who looks capable of being “the guy” this fall?
WR is an “Or” position. One guy can make a lot of difference. Ricky Jeune played a version of this role from 2015-2017, but GT really hasn’t had that guy since DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller in 2014. The passing game can’t fully takeoff until we have him. Perhaps it is James BlackStrain or Leo Blackburn, but they’re yet to arrive on campus. For tomorrow night, Malachi Carter, Kyric McGowan, Avery Boyd, and Ryan King are all guys to be aware of. Who can step up as a reliable target in traffic? Who can consistently make big plays, not just one every five games? Who does Jeff Sims target when he has to have a first down? I’m hoping that one guy jumps off the screen tomorrow night.
Enjoy watching football on the Flats tomorrow. We will be back early next week with an Advanced Stats Review of the game with a particular eye on these five questions. If you’ve got a statistical question you’d like for us to look at, drop it in the comments below.