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UNC Football Opponent Preview: Georgia Tech

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A Coastal team that’s undergoing a coaching change accompanied by a major offensive philosophical shift. No, the other one.

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Minnesota vs Georgia Tech Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

From 2008 to 2018, Georgia Tech football was at times very good, at times pretty good, and occasionally not very good at all. But during all that time, they definitely had one of the strongest identities in college football: Coach Paul Johnson’s Navy-imported triple option offense. Strictly in terms of what you see on the field, there might not have been a stronger association between a school’s name and its offensive identity than between GT and that flexbone backfield that made you defend three plays at once on every down. But time is undefeated, and Johnson retired at the end of the 2018 season. Now, the head man in Atlanta is Geoff Collins, previously of Temple, and you can bet the install work down in the ATL has been furious as Collins transitions the offensive roster from what it had been trained (and trained acutely) to do to his and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s (whom he brought with him from Temple) vision for the program, which he’s described as fluid and tailored to the talent on the roster but will assuredly be a little more pro-style. Let’s see what he’s working with:

Personnel

The Yellow Jackets lose two-year starting quarterback Ta’Quon Marshall to graduation. Marshall wasn’t the best passer, completing just 44% of his attempts last season, but in Paul Johnson fashion, nearly every completion was a bomb: he completed 48 passes for 900 yards, a healthy 18.75 yards per completion. He ran the option well, too, overseeing a run game that averaged 5.7 yards per carry. This year, longtime backup Lucas Johnson is the favorite to start. After transferring from Georgia State and sitting out 2016, Johnson backed up Marshall in 2017 and looked ready to challenge for a starting spot in 2018 before losing the season to injury. Incidentally, he’s now successfully appealed to get that season back, giving him two more years of eligibility beyond 2019 despite having started his college career in 2015. We don’t know a ton about Johnson; he hasn’t thrown a collegiate pass and his one rushing attempt went for one yard. Based on his high school numbers and his attractiveness to Paul Johnson, he’s a capable runner, but he’s a big unknown at the moment.

Because of the offensive shift, it’s hard to know exactly who’s going to start for the Jackets come opening day. They’re deep at running back, and leading non-QB rushers Jordan Mason and Jerry Howard will return after good 2018s to try and build on that success as more featured rushers. At wide receiver, freshman Ahmarean Brown has gotten a ton of good press and will likely start in the slot. Catch radius monster Jalen Camp is probably going to be the team’s best returning outside receiver, though with a sample size of 12 career receptions that’s not really saying a ton either way. Malachi Carter has turned heads in practice behind him, and Collins said at ACC Kickoff that he “wouldn’t trade [Carter] for a ton of other guys” in the ACC. At tight end, graduate transfer Tyler Davis, from UConn, will get a ton of work, being probably the only field-ready player at the position on the entire GT roster. He’s got a safe pair of hands, is a reliable chain mover, and showed a nose for the end zone last year, with 6 touchdowns on 22 catches.

Defense is a little easier to prognosticate. Five of GT’s top 10 tacklers will return, leaving some experience at all three levels of the defense as well as some holes to fill, especially on the line. The staff has also reportedly been experimenting with several players switching positions from offense to defense, and in some cases even playing guys at both, such as with the case of Jahaziel Lee, who will practice and expect to see playing time at offensive line, which he’s played at GT for the past 3 seasons, and defensive line, which he played in high school and apparently prefers. The Jackets are stacked at safety in particular, with Juanyeh Thomas leading the way after a solid freshman year highlighted by a 95-yard pick six against Louisville and Tariq Carpenter having flashed some playmaking ability as well.

Schedule

Geoff Collins will get a rude and probably unfair introduction to the ACC, as his Yellow Jackets are going to open their season against Clemson in Death Valley in the ACC Network’s kickoff special. From there, they’ll face another, less daunting challenge with a home opener against USF, one of the best non-P5 teams in the country but one that was absolutely floundering to end last year. They’ll get a breather after that with a non-major game against Citadel, a bye week, and an emotional return for Collins to Temple, before resuming conference play for their fifth game, which will be against UNC on October 5th. They’ll play the rest of the Coastal and also N.C. State the rest of the way, before finishing their season with Hate Week against the Dawgs of Georgia.

Tech won 7 games last year, but they’re undergoing a wholesale rebuild not dissimilar to the one we’re seeing with UNC. So, just like with UNC, fans will tell you that it was past time for the old regime to be scrapped and that the new staff is going to improve performance with no hitches whatsoever, while outside observers will write this season off entirely. ACC media at the conference’s Kickoff event picked GT to finish at the bottom of the division, with more separation there than between any two other positions in the Coastal, so they seem to agree with me that GT’s rebuild seems a little more difficult than UNC’s. But the Coastal is both ripe for upsets right now and extremely unpredictable in general. I’d be very surprised if the Jackets took more than 5 games this season, but I’m not ruling anything out.

UNC vs GT Outlook

I’m not going to put a Spiderman meme here or anything, but some of the similarities are undeniable: a new head coach who’s trying to emphasize in-state relationships, a new offensive coordinator bringing a totally new style, a quarterback who will have had little to no college experience, a healthy loss of experience on both ends but particularly on defense... Again, UNC and Georgia Tech are looking at similar, though far from identical, rebuilding and rebranding situations.

The primary difference is that what Paul Johnson was doing worked, at least a little. Sure, he didn’t recruit or play like you’d think a school in the heart of Atlanta should, but he consistently won more games than he lost and his players bought into the system. He had a firm identity as a coach. It seems to me that it will be a lot harder to transition from that to the new offense, even though the coach is embracing Atlanta much harder than Johnson ever did, especially when he doesn’t even really know what he’s going to be doing from year to year, than it will be for UNC, where numerous players both current and future have talked about how much easier it has been for them to see the new staff’s vision and how excited they are to rebound from a 2-win season. For that reason, I think UNC’s rebuild happens quicker than GT’s, and by their 5th game of the season, Tech won’t have caught up yet. I’m guessing the Heels take this one, 27-20.