After Georgia Tech’s TaxSlayer Bowl victory, I told you how fitting it was that the game featured so many good moments for several prominent seniors playing in their final career game. While one theme of the game was that of the team’s departing seniors, the other thing that stuck out when watching the game was the hope that this team has moving into 2017.
A Silver Lining to 2015
As the clock struck midnight and 2014 turned to 2015, Georgia Tech’s players and fans were still celebrating a huge Orange Bowl victory. Yet, even in that moment, there was always worry that a storm was coming in 2015. The team had its brand new star of a quarterback coming back along with several offensive linemen, but would have to replace 7 of its top 10 ball carriers and a pair of receivers that been incredible safety blankets for Justin Thomas. In all, the team had to replace 9 of 22 starters, including basically all of the skill position players who made any sort of meaningful impact not named Thomas.
The resulting lack of experience and some key injuries turned into a season that spiraled out of control and ended with a disappointing 3-9 record.
Yet, in all of the frustration that came along with that season, there was a key byproduct. All of the inexperience and injuries meant that freshmen and sophomores were playing roles before they were ready to do so. In doing so, they were gaining experience faster than they normally would have and adjusting to the college game in time to produce in 2016. Four of the team’s top six receivers were sophomores or freshmen, while five freshmen recorded double-digit carries (including the team’s top two rushers not named Thomas).
Unsurprisingly, that experience carried through into 2016 and was a major reason for the team’s strong finish and what became a 9-win season. Five of the team’s top six rushers were sophomores or freshmen. (The other was, again, named Thomas.) Of the team’s top five receivers, only Ricky Jeune was not a sophomore. By season’s end, sophomores Trey Klock and Will Bryan were joined regularly on the offensive line by freshmen Parker Braun, Jahaziel Lee, and Kenny Cooper.
The thing about college football is that, as long as players stick around, inexperienced units eventually become experienced. You’ve seen that process take place at Georgia Tech over the course of the last two seasons.
Experience Showed Up in Jacksonville
That inexperienced team in 2015 turned into an experienced one by the end of 2016, and it showed in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Consider:
- Sophomore A-back Qua Searcy reeled in a 36-yard reception and had 43 total yards on Georgia Tech’s first offensive possession.
big play waiting to happenA-back Clinton Lynch had a pair of carries that went for 20+ yards (one was called back on a clipping penalty).
- Junior wide receiver Ricky Jeune combined with sophomore wide receiver Brad Stewart and Searcy for a total of 105 yards on 6 receptions.
- Sophomore safety A.J. Gray led the team with 8 tackles.
- Junior safety Corey Griffin made three tackles and broke up a pair of passes, ultimately finishing the year as the team’s leader in tackles.
- Junior KeShun Freeman and junior Antonio Simmons were joined by sophomore Anree Saint-Amour in causing consistent havoc in pass-rush situations throughout the game.
The thing that each of the players mentioned above have in common? All of them started (or saw a considerable amount of action) before 2015. Seems like it’s paying off.
An Encouraging Look Towards 2017
In the TaxSlayer Bowl, as much as the seniors all were involved in some big moments, it was the players returning for 2017 who really made a ton of plays and deserve a lot of credit for the final outcome. That even includes several freshmen who are already playing extremely well and figure to contribute significantly in the years to come. Consider:
- Freshman B-back Dedrick Mills was given a trophy for being named MVP of the entire damn game, leading the team in yards and out-rushing Kentucky all by himself with 169 yards on 31 carries with a touchdown.
- True freshman Parker Braun started at LG and was the lead blocker on Georgia Tech’s 4th down conversion from their own 16. Outside of Burden, he’s arguably been the Yellow Jackets’ best offensive lineman over the final half of the season.
- After Burden’s injury, true freshman Kenny Cooper came in and played the final quarter as the starting center without missing a beat. That’s not anything new after what he’s done the rest of the season, either.
- True freshman Jahaziel Lee continued to play meaningful minutes at the tackle position and seems primed to take over the spot vacated by Eason Fromayan’s departure.
- Redshirt freshman Nathan Cottrell had three kick returns in the game. Each of them went for at least 22 yards and set the offense up with good starting field position.
Here’s the point. It’s hard for any team to replace three-year starters and long-time team leaders like Justin Thomas, Freddie Burden, Patrick Gamble, P.J. Davis, and Harrison Butker. Their losses will certainly be felt at times during the offseason and during 2017. However, in returning 17 starters (not to mention the numerous contributors off the bench), the Yellow Jackets have a ton already in place that can be built upon in 2017.
Now, to find a quarterback.