ATLANTA – Georgia Tech picked up commitments from three offensive linemen in September, bolstering what is shaping up to be a strong recruiting class for the Jackets.
Offensive line is a big position of need for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have just eight scholarship linemen projected to return in 2014. Seven of those will have at least two years of eligibility remaining, however, and three of them are first-year players, meaning Tech’s recruiters can sell prospects on the notion they can compete for starting jobs right away.
Recruits are also taking note of head coach Paul Johnson’s broadening of the Yellow Jacket offense. The notion of pass blocking makes Tech’s veteran linemen smile, but Georgia Tech linemen are doing more than just cut-blocking these days. Recruiters with opposing schools have long used Georgia Tech’s one-dimensional offensive scheme against the Jackets in recruiting linemen.
Tech has struggled to recruit wide receivers for much the same reasons.
The three committed linemen come from three different states. Tampa’s Gary Brown is an agile 280-pounder who committed in late September. His relatively small size meant Georgia Tech did not have to compete with major powers for his verbal. The same goes for 265-pound Andrew Marshall, a metro Atlantan who currently plays center at West Forsyth High.
The third recruit is South Carolina’s Jake Whitley, a giant at 6-4 and 300 pounds and a Georgia Tech target since his sophomore year.
Jake Stickler, a 6-5 and 275 pound tackle, committed to Georgia Tech in August.
Expect Georgia Tech to target more offensive linemen as signing day draws closer.
Johnson has at least three more scholarships left to offer, and the focus has been heavy on defensive players to this point. Linemen and a wide receiver or two would round out the class.
Losses May Have Johnson On Hot Seat
Johnson fell from the fans’ throne a while back only to land in the equivalent of a Barcalounger as he continued to win enough big games to satisfy the faithful.
Halfway through his sixth season, though, the seat of Johnson’s recliner is warming.
The Yellow Jackets’ 3-3 start to what was projected to be a breakout season has the faithful grumbling. And with Clemson and Georgia still left to play, another middling season seems inevitable.
Making matters worse for Johnson is the growing notion he’s lost his deft play-calling touch. The offense thrived the last two-and-a-half seasons despite a dearth of talent. This year, with promising players at all the offensive skill positions and a veteran line, the Yellow Jackets are struggling to produce points.
Many wonder if Johnson didn’t make a mistake in opening up his playbook to try to better leverage first-year starting quarterback Vad Lee’s talents. Johnson himself voiced a fear he’d overreached in adding multiple formations to his standard flexbone set.
“We’ve got too much stuff going on,” Johnson said prior to the opening loss – to Virginia Tech – in a three-game losing streak. “We’re doing too much stuff, and we’re not good at any of it. That’s not the way I like to play.”
The promise shown in the passing game in the season’s opening weeks against inferior competition has proved false. Incompletions and long-yardage situations interrupt Johnson’s play-calling rhythm. Instead of being a play ahead of defensive adjustments, he appears to be experimenting. As one Georgia Tech diehard put it while watching the Miami game, which started with the Jackets scoring 17 points on their first three drives before going into hibernation, “the coach who once had defensive coordinators guessing is now guessing himself.”
Plus, Georgia Tech is facing a burgeoning quarterback controversy. Redshirt freshman Justin Thomas played the final possession in the Oct. 12 loss to Brigham Young and led a 75-yard touchdown drive. Lee is still developing his accuracy as a passer, and he’s nowhere near as sharp as his predecessors, Tevin Washington and Joshua Nesbitt, in executing the option.
Lee still misinterprets the basic read – the defensive end – several times a game and has fumbling and pitch issues. Johnson bluntly stated the offense is “not very good” at running the option, and that’s an indictment of the quarterback. Thomas, meanwhile, is much more comfortable running the option.
Yet Johnson did give Lee a pseudo-vote of confidence following the BYU game, saying, “I can assure you quarterback’s not the issue. I mean, that’s not the problem. It’s a moot point. Did Vad do everything correct? No, but Vad wasn’t the problem. They’ve got to help him out.”
The poor play of the supporting cast has come from both expected sources (wide receiver) and unexpected (offensive line). At wideout, baseball player-turned-football star DeAndre Smelter has been the only reliable target for Lee, and Smelter had just 14 catches through six games. Projected No. 1 wideout Darren Waller has been inconsistent, dropping as many passes as he’s caught. A halfback, Robert Godhigh, was Georgia Tech’s second best pass catcher at midseason.
Up front, the line has been plagued by injuries. And a lack of depth means the sidelining of a starter leads to a reshuffling of positions, which results in erratic play. Tackle Ray Beno missed the BYU game, forcing guard Will Jackson to move to Beno’s spot with Trey Braun stepping into Jackson’s guard position. The shuffle, combined with a loud BYU crowd, resulted in five false start penalties on offensive linemen. A similar situation played out earlier this year, with injury-prompted position changes leading to three false start penalties in a game.
The Yellow Jackets will need to clean up their play down the stretch to staunch concerns about Johnson’s future. Georgia Tech started last season with a 2-4 record and hit the halfway point on a similar three-game losing streak. Tech finished strong, though, making the ACC Championship game and defeating Southern California in the Sun Bowl.
The fans weren’t happy but clung to the hope that a young team, led by Lee, would return the Jackets to Top 25 and ACC-contender status this year.
That hasn’t happened, and Georgia Tech needs to win the three of its remaining five FBS games just to reach bowl eligibility. The Yellow Jackets will be decided underdogs in two of those games – at Clemson and home against Georgia – making a three-week stretch against Syracuse, Virginia and Pittsburgh vital for Johnson.