It has been an odd first half of the season for Georgia Tech. In some ways unexpected, in other ways quite expected.
The growing pains have been severe since the coaching regime change. The progress has been slow, too slow for much of the fan base disheartened by the 27-24 loss to The Citadel. But the progress has also become apparent, especially in the wake of last week’s 28-21 overtime win at Miami that lifted the hearts of the Yellow Jackets faithful.
“Just really, really proud of them for buying into the process, developing, learning the process and then applying it,” coach Geoff Collins said after the win.
The Yellow Jackets stand at 2-5 overall and 1-3 in the conference after last week. The team is off this week before they return home for the final five games, four of which are in Bobby Dodd Stadium. Next up is Pitt at 4 p.m. Nov. 2.
Here are five things that have become evident after watching the Yellow Jackets play through the first half of their season.
James Graham has established himself as the No. 1 quarterback
The redshirt sophomore from Fitzgerald has pushed his way to the front of the line and has started the last three games. He has good speed — although he’s not as quick to cut and run as Tobias Oliver — and possesses a power arm. Graham is an aggressive player who enjoys airing out the deep ball when he gets a chance.
Graham has completed 45.9% of his passes for 666 yards and five touchdowns. He has rushed for 92 yards and scored one time. But he was sacked six times against Duke and has thrown three interceptions. He remains a work in progress.
The Yellow Jackets have proven they can run the ball
OK, they’re not running the option on every play like they did for 11 years, but Georgia Tech remains a run-oriented team. This may come as a surprise to some who thought the team would be throwing the ball around crazy, but things work better for the Yellow Jackets when they run the ball.
The offensive line — which lost two starters since the season began — is more adept at run blocking. That may be a holdover from the previous regime. Maybe its muscle memory. But Tech blocks better when running.
And Jordan Mason has established himself as the No. 1 running back. He has rushed for 566 yards and six touchdowns. He ran for 141 yards and scored the winning touchdown last week against Miami.
“My offensive line … it was just different,” Mason said. “They said from the last game they were ready to block for me and they did that.”
The pass rush remains a work in progress
Big plays may be on the way, but it’s taking time. The Yellow Jackets haven’t had a big-time pass rusher since Jeremiah Attaochu in 2013-14. No one has stepped forward in that role this season, although linebacker Charlie Thomas has the quickness and play-making ability to get in the opponent’s backfield.
The young defensive line is learning under a great mentor in assistant coach Marco Coleman, who was a two-time All-America during his record-breaking tenure at Georgia Tech. Coleman is patiently teaching the linemen, particularly the ends, to disrupt things. Junior Antwan Owns and redshirt sophomore Kelton Dawson have been at the top of the class.
The secondary has a chance to be special
There are numerous playmakers among this group. Cornerbacks Tre Swilling and Zamari Walton, nickel Kaleb Oliver and safeties Juanyeh Thomas and Tariq Carpenter make up the nucleus of the starting group.
Carpenter has 33 tackles — behind only linebackers David Curry and Charlie Thomas — with two tackles for loss, three breakups, three passes defend and one forced fumble. Carpenter assisted on the final tackle that ensured the Miami ball carrier was stopped short of the first down, preserving the win for Georgia Tech. Oliver leads the team with two interceptions and has three breakups, five passes defended and one forced fumble.
The culture has changed under the new administration
The mantra about competition has taken hold. All positions and playing time have been earned by preparation and effort in practice. The players have bought into the idea and understand its reality. It was brought home in last week’s overtime win against Miami, when Georgia Tech withstood a last-minute scare and had to survive in overtime.
“I’ve told everyone who would listen that these guys are getting better every single week,” Collins said. “That group that’s in white and gold is a good football team and we will continue to get better. They work hard, they have the right mindset and it’s awesome to get a group of guys that just keeps building.”