This preseason, Alex and Matt decided to do a joint, one stop shop scouting column for the, ummm, meat in Clemson’s schedule sandwich between the UGA and U of SC thickbread to begin and end the year. It isn’t news to anyone around here Clemson should skate through their remaining opponents, though the angst surrounding development on offense should at least keep this more a more interesting grind than many presumed all offseason.
It’s with this angst in mind that Alex looks at the Georgia Tech defense.
Andrew Thacker followed Geoff Collins from Temple in 2019 and the two have since paired to form the defensive brain trust on the Flats. Thacker’s defenses align in the now-standard 4-2-5 with a third cover corner and typically aim to employ more press man coverage techniques. Tech has all but scrapped the Sam position and will throw another Will or Mike in when situations call for more than two linebackers, and the base defense employs a true corner in place of the Sam, versus the linebacker/safety hybrid Clemson usually throws into the same spot in its base defense.
Press man only goes as far as corner and pass rush talent allow though, and of course this led to both a lot of difficult matchups and more soft zones than they would’ve like in 2019 and 2020.
Fast forward to the third year under Collins and Thacker, and the Jackets have accrued a solid amount of talent relative to where they were, and should in theory hold up better in press man coverage. This is a welcome challenge in our view since we need to see Clemson receivers improve at getting open against aggressive defenders to make things easier on a growing quarterback.
It’s difficult to project all too much in this specific matchup, since Tech doesn’t release a depth chart and has actually played up this mystery into a deeper mind game than I’ve yet seen from any coaching staff. But if Northern Illinois and Kennesaw State were any indication, we’ll see a bevy of third and fourth year corners playing with Collins’ and Thacker’s desired philosophical aggression. The results to this point, however, have been middling.
So how will Thacker and Collins roll? Conventional wisdom calls for the heavy underdogs to try and shorten the game and play conservatively, but that isn’t really Collins modus operandi on either side of the ball. Unless Collins reins it in to just get back down I-85 quickly, we’ll see mostly the same cover 1 and 2 man under which Georgia ran with great success against a Clemson offense which has severely disappointed through the air.
Not surprisingly, it’s on the ground where Clemson can open this up. Tech’s defensive front is deep but not particularly talented, and success in the run game can force Tech into cover 3 and cover 4 with heavy boxes to give the wide receivers 1-on-1 matchups where we can best gauge their weekly improvement.
If this isn’t already a broken record over the years in this conference, we’ll smash that vinyl over your skulls for the next two months: the opposition just doesn’t have the talent to keep Clemson from doing what they want (even if they tinker and sputter more than it should). The primary interest in this corner of the internet will remain on gauging the much-needed improvement against a defense which will actually try harder to physically match up with Clemson than the rest of the ACC.
Geoff Collins is Putting Together An Interesting Offense, It Just Doesn’t Work Yet
Somehow this feels like the third year zero in a row.
If you can remember all the way back to 2019 you might recall Geoff Collins entering Georgia Tech as an aggressively media friendly coach positioned as the man to take Georgia Tech past the limits many felt Paul Johnson had placed on the program. We knew he was going into a year zero at the time, and the desultory offense the Yellow Jackets trotted out a couple of years ago was forgivable.
From a certain lens, it would be entirely reasonable to write off 2020 as a result of COVID. That’s not much of a comfort in Atlanta, where Tech has yet to sign a recruit the Bulldogs seriously wanted and ranked 14th in scoring offense in the ACC last year. It certainly isn’t comforting when Georgia Tech opened up Collins’ third year by losing to a MAC school. After his initial media blitz, many are still waiting for proof of concept.
I am not going to sit here and tell you they’ve got it. Georgia Tech has an offensive line that cannot pass block and a dual-threat quarterback in Jordan Yates who, like a lot of young running quarterbacks, is going to get sacked a lot. Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude is kind of making this work despite that though. We’re going to take a look at how he’s patching this together.
Georgia Tech hasn’t gone that far from their option roots honestly. There’s a reason for that, with offensive linemen who are going to struggle to win up front in straight up fights, it really helps to have the quarterback involved to even the numbers. Tech helps the offensive linemen out a few other ways here, setting every linemen up on this counter read to get an advantageous angle or a running start on his block, before (since injured) QB Jeff Sims keeps the ball. This sucks for linebackers or safeties to try to follow, with backfield misdirection and linemen pulling away from the direction the ball is eventually going.
Here Tech is running a different variation of counter read, with the running back running a sweep in case the defensive end crashes, before the QB keeps the ball up the middle.
Here Sims reads the defensive end sitting at home and hands off, while Jahmyr Gibbs is set up behind a pair of lead blockers on the pin-pull play to the tight end. A bubble screen to the trips to the backside helps keep several defenders from being able to pursue. Gibbs, meanwhile, is that dude. He’s got the power and vision to make things happen every time he touches the ball. Gibbs (#1) and Jordan Mason (#27) give the Yellow Jackets a strong pair of backs who can do damage in the passing game, an area Gibbs excels in particular.
Patenaude is good at using jet motion to set up running and passing plays later in the game. The Yellow Jackets hand off enough on the jet sweep so that you have to honor it. Once your defense is reacting to the sweep it’s not that hard to say, set up a cut back attacking defenders going after the sweep.
Here Georgia Tech goes under center, run jet motion away from the play before running a toss play to the boundary for a touchdown. Any time you can get a running back this far downfield behind lead blockers something good is likely to happen.
This creativity extends to the passing game as well. Look at how open the running back and tight end (covered by players who are asked to tackle jet sweeps in the running game) wind up on these seam routes. The execution isn’t there yet for it to pay off, but this is what scheming players open looks like.
Georgia Tech came back to this concept against Kennesaw State and scored a touchdown with Jordan Mason leaking out of the backfield away from the motion.
Jordan Yates is not a good drop back passer. Jeff Sims isn’t a good drop back passer either. The Georgia Tech drop back passing game is based around simple concepts such as mesh, slot fades, smash, four verticals...and missing open receivers.
If Georgia Tech is forced to drop back and pass consistently they are screwed. This offensive line couldn’t keep an FCS team from getting consistent pressure with four pass rushers, they are not doing anyone any favors here.
Despite that the passing game hasn’t been nearly as unproductive as you’d expect. Yates is completing 70% of his passes, admittedly for a pretty low yards/attempt, because a lot of his throws are simple looks off of run action.
By relying on RPO’s, play-action, and high school staple concepts like waggle, Patenaude has been pretty successful at disguising his quarterbacks limits as a passer.
Malachi Carter (#7) gives Yates a top target, while Northwestern transfer Kyric McGowan (#2) has enjoyed a breakout start of the year. The duo’s deep threat ability (they both average above 13.5 yards/catch) helps open up space underneath. All in all it’s an impressive job by a coach maximizing his roster.
Is it going to be enough to score on Clemson? I don’t think so, no. Georgia Tech is an actively bad drop back passing team and I just don’t think they are going to be able to run the ball against the Tigers front. So many of the ways Yates is protected in the passing game don’t work if the defense isn’t forced to respect the threat of the run. An offensive line that struggled with blitz pickup and just straight up blocking MAC/FCS pass rushers is not going to do well against Clemson’s pass rush, but I can see an outline of a pretty creative offense here, even if Georgia Tech does still seem to be two years away...from being two years away.