It was under austere conditions that Georgia Tech played its first football game of 2013. That this game was staged before an estimated gathering of 5,000 on a chilly Friday night after a rainy April afternoon, and that Georgia Tech’s opponent was Georgia Tech lessened the stakes more than a bit, but still … this was our real look at a team approaching a significant season.
Paul Johnson has coached the Yellow Jackets for five seasons to lessening results. Tech went 20-7 his first two years; it has gone 21-19 since. Yes, the Jackets did play for the 2012 ACC title, but only because Miami backed out, and yes, they did beat USC in the Sun Bowl, but only because the NCAA granted a 6-7 team a waiver and because the Trojans were coached by Lane Kiffin.
Tech football has been trending downward since 2009, and it must be noted that the Institute’s athletic director is Mike Bobinski, who arrived officially on April Fool’s Day and who didn’t hire Johnson. At an introductory briefing in January, Bobinski said all the right things about the football coach he would inherit, but words are easy. Will a new AD continue to stand foursquare behind a coach not of his hiring if the coach isn’t winning nine or 10 games a season?
Even as we ponder that metaphysical question, we note that there are two key reasons to believe better days are ahead. Tech has a new quarterback and a new defensive coordinator, and that’ll shake up any program.
The coordinator is Ted Roof, the Tech alum with the odd resume: He keeps getting hired by smart men, but rarely seems to justify their faith. Then again, Roof did preside over a national championship defense at Auburn in 2011 — although Cam Newton and Gus Malzahn and the Tigers offense surely had more to do with that improbable run. Johnson believes Tech’s defense under Roof will be “more aggressive,” though no one ever suggests a defense will be “more passive.”
The quarterback is Vad Lee, who’s the most gifted player at the position Johnson has had here. (This takes nothing away from the redoubtable Joshua Nesbitt, who led Tech to such great heights in 2008 and 2009.) Lee can run really fast and, in a departure for Tech under Johnson, throw pretty well. Might the latter gift prompt PJ to incorporate the forward pass more fully into his stylized offense?
Spring games never offer full answers to any questions, but a slight hint was dropped Friday. Lee threw 13 passes, completing four. He had one horrible-looking interception — an underthrown throwaway — and one deft touchdown pass to Deon Hill. (Lee also lofted a deep ball that Darren Waller should have caught for a touchdown, prompting cornerback Jamea Thomas to say, “He dropped money.”)
And that, as far as hints went, was about it. It was hard to know what to make of Roof’s defense for the fundamental reason that it was playing against an offense it won’t see again until next spring. It also was hard to know what to make of the Jackets’ talent level — long a source of discussion in this space — because the No. 1 offense started against the No. 1 defense and the No. 2 against the No. 2. Then they started switching, which complicated matters even more.
If this wasn’t nearly as sloppy as the infamous first spring game under Johnson, in which the first snap yielded a fumble, neither was it precision with a capital “P.” After the dropped touchdown pass and two first-quarter fumbles, Tech publicist Dean Buchan took up the press-box microphone and said: “Paul Johnson has said he’s going to let (assistant coaches) call the plays, but if this keeps up, that may change.”
As is his spring custom, Johnson surveyed proceedings from the middle of the field. With a nod to the conditions, he went the Belichick route and wore a grey hoodie. “Nice fall weather out there,” he said afterward.
Also this: “I never read too much into the games. I wouldn’t call the games the way the (assistants) call it. This is more to have fun.”
Then this: “The thing you’ve got to be careful about in these games is not to read too much into it.”
And we won’t. This spring game, like all spring games, didn’t count, and it won’t be remembered for longer than the five seconds it takes to read this sentence. On to autumn.