I recently exchanged emails with Josh at SB Nation’s Georgia Tech blog From The Rumble Seat in order to learn more about Kentucky’s match-up against the Yellow Jackets. As someone possessing a sizeable chunk of family living in Atlanta, two of which work for Georgia Tech (and are friends with Marcus Marshall’s parents against all cosmic coincidences), this game carries personal stake.
Thanks to the team, I was able to avoid crowing from the Louisville fans in my family over Thanksgiving. Hopefully the team helps me navigate one last obstacle, otherwise I’m turning my phone off and hitting the booze early on December 31st. Win just one for The Gipper!
I’d like to thank Josh for taking the time to provide thoughtful responses to this jumbo-sized Q&A. I suggest giving him a Twitter follow @joshbrundage. The answers to my questions will be posted soon, and I will link those here in the comments when that happens.
Without further ado...
1. Georgia Tech had a three game losing streak against Clemson, Miami, and Pitt in the first half of the season, but rebounded nicely winning five of its last six games including winning at Virginia Tech and at Georgia. Kentucky experienced its own turnaround this season, but for Georgia Tech, what were the biggest factors that contributed to the rally?
Toward the end of the season, Tech just did a much better job of not beating themselves and capitalizing on turnovers and other opportunities. The Pitt loss in particular was incredibly fluky: our corner dropped a pick-six, Pitt tied the game on a tipped pass that landed in their receivers hands late in the 4th quarter, and then won the game on a field goal that hit the upright and bounced through. We lost the Miami game after the forced a pair of fumbles returned for touchdowns on consecutive drives… it was a weird stretch of games.
The offense has been pretty consistent all season, while the defense has been very up and down. If the defense can force turnovers, like they have later in the season, then it bodes well for the Yellow Jackets.
2. Leading rusher Marcus Marshall has decided to transfer, but back-up Dedrick Mills has had a nice season himself. Do Georgia Tech fans think Mills is capable of a heavier workload at the "B-Back" position? Additionally, what style running back would you categorize Mills [fast and shifty or a bruiser]?
Yes, Mills has actually been the starter all season, but has struggled to stay on the field between suspension and injury. He’s shown in the games that he’s played in that he’s capable of handling the workload and being the feature back, so hopefully he can make it through an entire season next year.
To play the B-back position, you already have to be a bruising-style runner since you’re constantly running between the tackles and taking a hit on almost every play, but Mills has also shown great breakaway speed once he finds the open field. He also possesses the vision and elusiveness to make a quick cut or two in order to spring the big plays up the middle.
3. Georgia Tech's offensive efficiency wouldn't be possible without at least a solid offensive line. Is it an experienced group and which players stand out? I noticed center Freddie Burden was Third Team All-SEC.
Burden is the most experienced of the group and is the anchor of the line. The starting left side of the line are actually freshmen, with a true sophmore at RG in Will Bryan – the line played so poorly to start the season, that the upperclassmen, such as Shamire Devine and Eason Fromayan, lost their starting jobs. The younger players have played their tails off all year since, and besides the occasional missed assignment, have proven themselves to be the future at their positions. It’s pretty remarkable how quickly both Jahaziel Lee and Parker Braun came in and quickly earned starting jobs on the left side. The future of Tech’s O-line is very, very bright, albeit not very experienced right now.
4. Quarterback Justin Thomas is third on the team in rushing, and has played in at least 10 games per season since his freshman season. The senior quarterback also had his highest QB rating yet this season. How will Georgia Tech fans remember Thomas after he plays his final game in the TaxSlayer Bowl?
Us Tech faithful will have nothing but the fondest of memories for Thomas when he graduates – he’s the most successful quarterback under Johnson’s tenure, and has made some truly dazzling plays in his 3 years as a starter. It seems like yesterday that he was juking a Mississippi State player of his shoes in the Orange Bowl win. He’s also beaten Georgia twice in Athens, which is not a small feat for a Georgia Tech quarterback.
He’s also the best passer Johnson has had, and I don’t mean just statistically, though he is that as well. He’s the first flexbone quarterback that doesn’t make all of us collectively groan when he drops back to pass – he’s got a quick release, is very accurate, and has only thrown 2 picks on the year. His arm is a definite upgrade from many of the wounded-bird looking passes we’ve seen in previous years. We’re going to miss JT5 immensely.
5. I noticed Georgia Tech's receivers don't catch a lot of balls, but four with at least nine catches this year all average over 15 yards per catch. On paper, this looks to me like the receiving corps makes big plays off of play-action given GT's offensive scheme. Would you say this is correct, but also which receivers should UK's defensive backs be the most concerned about?
Yes, this offense basically forces single coverage on the outside, so our receivers usually only have 1 man to beat for a big play. The play-action pass in non-obvious passing situations has been lethal for most of the year, which explains our receiver’s high yardage averages.
Our A-backs are hybrid slot receivers and running backs, so despite lining up in about the same formation every play and running 75% of the time, you really have to scheme your defense against the run game while the ever-present threat of a 4-verts audible lingers when the safeties start creeping up.
On the perimeter, Ricky Jeune is probably the biggest threat at WR, but for some reason defenses like to forget about Brad Stewart, who starts opposite him. It seems like Stewart will have a couple catches a game for big gains with seemingly no defender within 15 yards of him. Stewart averages about 5 ypc more than Jeune.
Our leading receiver is actually A-back Clinton Lynch who averages over 30 yards per reception, so Kentucky would do well to cover him as well.
6. Shifting gears to the defense, can you give a basic overview of Georgia Tech's defensive scheme? Do they play four- or three-man fronts? Is it an aggressive blitzing defense, or more of a bend-don't-break conservative style?
Tech’s base defense is a 4-3, but they’re in a 4-2-5 just as regularly, if not more. With the amount of spread teams we play over the course of the year, we’ve ended up with more DB’s on the field just by nature.
Our defense is an incredibly maddening bend-don’t-break that does a lot of breaking. We’ve discussed ad-nausea on our blog how much better an aggressive D would suit our offense, but instead you’ll see soft coverage on the outside in order to not let receivers get behind our secondary. Part of the issue is also that we generate next to no pass rush with just our front four, so it’s been a bad combination of things all year… The QB’s we’ve faced usually have all day to throw, which leads to wide open receivers all over the field.
7. A month ago, Joey wrote a post criticizing the defense, but he recommended several tweaks in his conclusion. How would you categorize the defense since that post published? Specifically, the rush defense because UK's offense is predicated first and foremost on running the ball this season.
I can’t say we really noticed anything different since then – the defense bowed up when it needed to against Georgia and Virginia, but the rest of both of those games were pretty miserable on that side of the ball. Most of the game against UGA, our D-line was getting blown off the ball on rushes, and it was pretty miserable to watch. With the game on the line, Ted Roof, our DC, started sending more pressure with linebackers and safeties and got crucial stops when we needed it. We just wish he would be more aggressive all game… it usually works when he is.
Kentucky should be able to move the ball on the ground – the front 7 for Tech is definitely not a strength of the team. Especially if UK can complete some early passes to soften up the middle, it could be a long day for the Tech defense.
8. Defensive tackle Patrick Gamble was named to the All-ACC Honorable Mention Team, and cornerback Lance Austin led the ACC in 12 passes broken up this season (along with three interceptions) along with being named the ACC Defensive Back of the Week twice in 2016. These two players seem poised to cause UK problems. Where do you think they'll make the biggest impact, and are there other players UK fans should be on the lookout for?
It’s funny you mention Lance Austin, because he’s not even our best corner. Step Durham plays opposite him, but he doesn’t have the stats because he’s so lockdown that he hardly ever gets thrown at. Austin stresses us out at corner, and he honestly gets picked on a lot by opposing defenses… which is why he has more stats. I’m not saying he’s terrible or anything, but Durham is so good on the opposite side, that offenses seem to only throw at Austin over there. He’s been up and down this season, but he’s made the big plays when the game was on the line. He’s definitely someone to keep an eye out for if the game is close in the 4th.
The other player you should keep an eye out for on defense is safety A.J. Gray – he’s been all over the field the season, and he’s been dynamic in run support. He’s just a mean, hard-hitting safety who has great coverage skills. He seems to always be around the ball.
9. Make your prediction on the game, and provide one or two of the most significant factors contributing to the outcome.
Not to besmirch Wildcat football, but I think Tech wins this one fairly easily. I think the option plays combined with play-action passes stumps the UK defense and Tech takes a fairly big lead into the half. Tech hasn’t been a great 3rd quarter team this year, so I could see UK coming back and making it close, but I would guess a final score somewhere in the area of 38-24, with a Tech victory.
We’ll look forward to seeing you guys NYE in Jacksonville!