GAME PREVIEW: Georgia Tech at Clemson (Thursday at 8 p.m.)
By Matt Winkeljohn
On the verge of the christening night of the wide-open Geoff Collins era at Georgia Tech, which has been all about frenetic blitzes since he was hired, he’s closing doors and laying down protocol for the Yellow Jackets’ first game to “calm down,” while also changing everything.
Everybody follow that? This is football.
It will be madness Thursday night in Death Valley, where Clemson and its fans will celebrate wildly at the first game played since the Tigers won their third national championship in January. The chaos will be constant in Memorial Stadium.
To get ready, the Jackets on Thursday, “closed all the doors to the indoor (practice facility), and we cranked the sound system up to 11 to get as loud as humanly possible for the offense to understand the environment that we’re going into on Thursday night …” Collins said.
“There’s going to be a lot of extra things happening Thursday night. Our guys have to stay in the moment, keep communicating, talking to their coaches, coaches talking to players and players talking to each other and doing that at a really high level.”
The Jackets are over-working details, like talking to each other or exchanging hand signals or flipping boards when nobody can hear. There are all kinds of procedures for players and coaches communicating to each other on and off the field. Collins said “we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on our processes …“
Much of that had to do with daily practice structures, but when they’re on the field, there will be changeups as well.
As Tech transitions from former head coach Paul Johnson’s option-based, run-heavy attack to a pro-style spread offense, the Jackets have re-instituted the tight end position (which is not much like what your parents might remember).
They’ve also created the “flex” position.
When Collins released Tech’s “Above The Line” chart of players who are considered ready to play in games, it included Nathan Cottrell, Omarhi Jarrett and Jair Hawkins-Anderson – two former “A-backs” (slot backs in Johnson’s offensive system) and a fast wide receiver. There are 66 players on the list, including 11 true freshmen, 11 redshirt freshmen and 11 seniors.
Basically, the flex is a versatile running back/slot receiver, somewhat like Johnson’s A-back (although A-backs ran the ball more than they caught it). There’s a good chance the inverse will be true in the new offense of coordinator of Dave Patenaude.
“It’s kind of a hybrid between somebody who can play running back and slot receiver, somebody that can motion in and out of the backfield, create different looks,” Patenaude said.
The goal, Patenaude said, is to puzzle opposing defensive coordinators with regards to the personnel they want to deploy. “[We want other teams thinking] Are we going to put in a two-back defense?” he said.
Tech may also play multiple quarterbacks – redshirt sophomore Lucas Johnson, redshirt sophomore Tobias Oliver (below) and redshirt freshman James Graham are all listed as Above The Line, which indicates that all three will make their on to the field.
“We have three unique athletes back there that all do three different things,” Patenaude said. “We have a base offense that we can run with all of them, but there are some specialized things that we already have in the works to do with each different guy, and I’m excited. I don’t want to say much more than that.”
Tech’s defense figures to morph frequently as well.
More often than not, it’s likely the Jackets will line up in a 4-2-5, which has become the base defense for many college (and pro) teams as the passing game has taken over the sport.
What Tech does within that is another story.
Collins, who is a defensive guy by standard, and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker are like all defenders in the modern game. They’re going to change things up.
But they may change it up more in this first game than standard.
The baseline goal for these Jackets is for defensive backs to play more “press” coverage than Tech has in years, for defensive backs to get forward against receivers at the line of scrimmage before the snap.
But Clemson has the top passing quarterback in the nation in sophomore Trevor Lawrence and two of the top five wide receivers in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. They’re fast.
Cornerbacks Tre Swilling (below) and Jaytlin Askew will do different things, as will safeties Tariq Carpenter and Juanyeh Thomas.
“I have to mix calls up. I can’t call the game scared … You can’t double-team everybody on every single play, so we’ve got to be us …” Thacker said. “That is our base way of our play. They are elite on the perimeter … we’re not going to be fools about having the opportunity to double.”
That’s partly because Clemson also has one of the most talented running backs in the nation in Travis Etienne.
“They’re explosive in so many ways . . . It is not a game plan where you can just take away one component,” Thacker said.
“Not understating it, you’re seeing a generational quarterback,” Thacker said of Lawrence. “He is the elite quarterback in college football.”
It’s not a bad thing that Clemson lost five defensive starters to the NFL draft, including four linemen (three in the first round). But the Tigers are still talented on defense, especially in the secondary, where they boast a graduate student, a senior and a junior among their starters.
But none of that matters as much as the Jackets staying in their lanes.
Even with all the massive social media rushes since Collins was hired, plus the super-intense training sessions and the almost hysterical pace of the program, it’s time to slow down while at the same time as speeding up.
Patenaude said this in reverse order, but he nailed it.
“This is one of the greatest venues in college football, right? It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be enthusiastic. We have to [block] that out. We have to take all the external forces out of what we’re doing …” he said. “It really becomes a little bit cliché after a while to say, ‘Hey, we’re really just worried about what we’re doing,’ but, in fact, it’s really all you can do.”