As we sat at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday night and watched the Yellow Jackets' oh-so-satisfying dismantling of a team that they were supposed to dismantle, something we've discussed a bit in the lead up to the season was playing out about as well as I could have hoped for.
Before we move on, let's get this clear: yes, I understand that the opponent was Alcorn State, who is inferior to Georgia Tech and every other team on its schedule this year. I'm not trying to avoid the fact that this game went exactly how it was supposed to and I don't think we should be drawing conclusions from it. I just want to talk about a big picture trend that seems to bode nicely going forward and can really say something about the program's development over the last few years.
Now that we've established that, the thing that amazed me the most about Georgia Tech's performance on Thursday night was the success of its true freshmen in the game. Several true freshmen made excellent plays, and a few had outstanding games altogether. B-Back Marcus Marshall broke two long runs in which he displayed some truly impressive burst. A-Back TaQuon Marshall had a nice catch for 24 yards and a carry for 18 more. Will Bryan was one of the first offensive linemen off the bench and played very well. Victor Alexander, Brant Mitchell, and A.J. Gray combined for 9 tackles, 2 TFL, and a fumble recovery.
It's noticeable to me not because it's unusual nationally for true freshmen to succeed, but because of how much of a departure it is from recent trends on this team. Among the junior and senior classes, only four players have never redshirted (Adam Gotsis, D.J. White, P.J. Davis, and Harrison Butker), and few more than that actually played as true freshmen.
To be fair, Paul Johnson has never been shy about the fact that most players can "help the team more as a fifth-year senior than as an 18-year-old true freshman", and there's a lot of truth to that. The more time that players have to develop physically and mentally, the better they'll get.
But perhaps the biggest difference from previous seasons is that Georgia Tech is starting to bring in more players who are ready to contribute as true freshmen, both physically and mentally. The rankings may not have changed much over that time period, but the quality of players being brought in definitely has.
Some might point out the large senior classes that have departed, leaving lots of room to be filled on the depth chart, and that being a reason that so many are playing early. My response would be to look at the situations specifically. Is Brad Stewart playing because they need bodies, or because he's beating out multiple players who have been here previously for the job? Guys like Alexander and Mitchell joined a linebacker corps that's filled with players and usually only has two spots on the field, and both of them look to be key backups moving forward, with potential to start in Mitchell's case. Will Bryan beat out the likes of Jake Stickler and Eason Fromayan to be the first OT off the bench as well.
As we talk about the program improving, part of that happening is improved recruiting, which can become a very cyclical improvement. Sign better players, win more games. Win more games, attract better players. Attract better players, sign better players. Rinse, wash, repeat.
As we get more into the season, keep an eye on the true freshmen. If you need an indicator that this program is improving, their contributions are a good one.