By Jon Cooper
Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins is widely known by the moniker, “Minister of Mayhem.”
He also recognizes that there’s an answer to his team’s questions within the mayhem he preaches and creates. It’s just that sometimes that answer may not be fully evident right away.
Flash back to the spring.
“Six months ago, we had a workout called ‘The Program,’ Collins said. “Our offseason is pretty intense, we do a lot of creative things to build a culture, to build a football program. The first night of ‘The Program,’ we put them in some situations that were going to be very hard to accomplish and they weren’t able to do it. The chaos that we would create and the things that were happening forced them to crack mentally, they were bickering with each other, they were losing composure. It’s chaotic. There’s a lot of things that are going on.”
Back to Saturday. Georgia Tech faced third-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 4-yard line. It was the 10th play of a drive that had gone 68 yards and put the Yellow Jackets on the verge of tying the game at 17-17. But, just inches shy crossing the goal line for the game-tying score, quarterback Lucas Johnson fumbled into the end zone. Pitt not only recovered the loose ball, but it also returned it all the way to the Tech 21.
Facing a turn of events that would have broken a mentally weak team, the Jackets’ defense not only drew a line in the sand but then pushed that line back on each of the next three plays, forcing the Panthers to try a long field goal on fourth-and-20. Pitt made the 49-yard field goal but Tech’s reaction to the unfortunate circumstances still made an impression on Collins.
“Six months ago, I don’t know if we would have been able to handle the situation,” Collins said. “But they did, they were able to stay in the moment, they were able to maintain composure when some things were happening outside of their control and they kept battling and kept fighting. The chaotic situations and the mayhem that we put them through help them be able to handle those kinds of things.
“You’ll see the defensive guys, regardless of the circumstance, they’re like ‘Just put the ball down and let’s play,’” he added. “People that don’t have a strong mindset and have the propensity to be negative will just let go of the rope and just let them walk in to score. Our guys did not do that. Our defensive guys, their mindset is, ‘Here’s what the task is at hand. Something bad just happened, it doesn’t matter. What can we control now?’ They went out there and controlled the situation. Those kinds of moments, those kinds of things are something to build on.”
Sophomore safety Juanyeh Thomas echoed Collins’ sentiment.
“Six months ago, if that would have happened, there would have been a whole bunch of chatter — ‘Oh, we should have done that,’ blah, blah, blah.’ But over those six months, we grew a bond and became tighter,” said Thomas, who set a career-high with eight tackles, recorded his first two career tackles for loss and made an acrobatic interception against Pitt. “Now, if the offense messes up, we are going to go out there like, ‘Put the ball down.’ It’s life, it happens. If a person messes up, the defense is going to pick up the slack for them. That’s what Coach Collins has been preaching the whole year.”
Thomas was part of a defense that created three turnovers in the first half — fellow safety Tariq Carpenter also got his first interception of the season and the Jackets recovered a second-quarter fumble forced by Tech’s leading tackler, David Curry.
The Jackets cashed in the fumble recovery, as quarterback James Graham parachuted in a 51-yard pass to freshman Ahmarean Brown on the first play after the takeaway to cut an early 10-0 deficit to 10-7.
Graham was proof-positive of the offensive side of the new culture in his maturity in handling adversity. In his case, it was his response to Johnson starting the second half . The redshirt freshman understood.
“To be honest, I did not play as well as I wanted to. I missed a lot of throws that I should have made. I felt like I was rushing everything,” said Graham. “ I room with Lucas at the team hotel. We support each other and this week he had a great week of practice. Both of us did. I supported it, told him, ‘Let’s go!’ I supported him the whole 100 yards.”
While not easy, Graham’s attitude was impressive.
“He had a great attitude when we told him that Lucas was going to get the call in the second half,” Collins said. “It is very easy when something happens that you might not like, to sit there and pout and be a bad teammate and have a bad attitude and it affects other people. James Graham did not do that. He was the consummate teammate. He was cheering for Lucas, he was excited to see Lucas back out there playing because he hasn’t played in a couple weeks as he’s been getting healthy. I was really proud of how [James] handled that moment.”
This lesson in maturity immediately paid off, when Johnson was forced to leave the game after the goal-line fumble.
“If James Graham sits there when Lucas goes in there and has a bad attitude and pouts and he sulks, when he gets in there, he’s not going to be able to play at a high level,” Collins said. “But the James Graham that came back in the second half was the James Graham that we had been seeing. It was a learning experience for him. Let’s not forget that he’s a redshirt freshman. To show that kind of character in that kind of environment, I thought was pretty special. That kind of messaging and that kind of belief system that our players have pay off in moments like that.”
As the Jackets prepare for Saturday’s final road game of the 2019 regular-season at Virginia, they’re thinking positively and working to correct the physical errors.
It’s now more a matter of physical than mental for them.
“The way we practice, lights out and just giving 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time. We just have to reciprocate the same thing into the games and just treat it like practice,” said junior running back Jerry Howard Jr., who blocked a third-quarter punt, setting up a field goal that pulled the Jackets within 17-10 and giving Tech three-straight games with a blocked kick. “I feel like sometimes I am even rushed out there. We just need to calm down and do our football. Because at the end of the day, we can do it because we are good athletes here.”
Not overthinking worked for Thomas.
“I felt like the past weeks, I haven’t been doing enough. I’ve been hesitant,” he said. “Tonight, I talked to ‘Riq [Carpenter]. He just said, ‘Go!’ So I was like, ‘Alright, I’m going to go.’ There it was tonight. I just feel like if you think before the play and the play comes, you’re going to mess up. So when the play comes, just go and then the play will come to you. I promise.”
The Jackets believe they’re on the way to fulfilling the promise and becoming the program Collins envisions. When they do, they’ll have things like “The Program” to thank.
“The buy-in, the belief system that they have in what we do and how they go out there every single day to get better, I’m just really proud of that group of guys,” Collins said. “They’re going to come back to work with the right mindset, the right mentality to get better.”