10 undecidedly must-read Tech notes

 

Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas is just one of several standout Yellow Jackets who was recruited by former Tech assistant and current Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly (ASSOCIATED PRESS).

Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas is just one of several standout Yellow Jackets who was recruited by former Tech assistant and current Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly (ASSOCIATED PRESS).

1. The role that Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly will play in Saturday’s ACC championship is one of the most intriguing elements of the game. A few things about Kelly you may not have known:

– Kelly played a big part in recruiting Justin Thomas to Tech. Thomas shared this week that Kelly, who was in charge of recruiting the state of Alabama for coach Paul Johnson, “recruited me pretty hard. He was a good guy.”

Kelly brought in several noteworthy recruits to Tech out of Alabama. Besides Thomas, consider the Alabama prospects who signed with Tech during his time with Johnson alone – Tevin Washington, T.J. Barnes, Orwin Smith, Deon Hill and Jamal Golden, not to mention Corey Dennis, Beau Hankins and Tyler Stargel. That is a lot of hits. He also recruited Jemea Thomas, among others.

– After serving as the interim defensive coordinator for the final eight games of the 2012 season in replacement of Al Groh, Kelly was to be the replacement. However, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who has known Kelly for years and thinks the world of him, swooped in with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Kelly got a three-year deal at $275,000 per year to coach linebackers and special teams. He had been made $210,000 in the 2012 season on a one-year deal.

I don’t know if he would have made a whole lot more as a coordinator at Tech.

“When Jimbo called me, I knew that was probably over,” Johnson said. “That’s usually the way it works.”

A couple days later, Tech hired Ted Roof from Penn State.

– I found Kelly to be earnest and hard-working. Before the bowl game in 2012, I asked to talk with him for a story about his run as defensive coordinator. He at first accepted, then wavered on it a little bit and then finally told me he didn’t want to do it for a reason you don’t hear often. He didn’t want it to look like he was campaigning for the job. It’s not often I get coaches or anyone else asking me not to write stories that will likely reflect well on them. But, I think he comes from the school of thinking that if you do your job well, jobs will find you, not the other way around. Ultimately, that’s pretty much how it worked out for him.

2. I asked Johnson about the hand signals that Tech will use Saturday, given Kelly’s familiarity with them. Johnson’s response: “We’re going to use exactly the same ones. Print that.”

3. Bonuses that Johnson will collect this year:

– $75,000 for making a bowl game.

– $25,000 for being named ACC coach of the year.

– $25,000 for having the team ranked in the top 25 in the final regular-season poll.

Bonuses that he could still collect:

– $200,000 for an ACC championship.

– $200,000 if the bowl game is a “BCS game.” The language may change if and when the contract is renegotiated, but I’d suspect the Orange Bowl would fall in that category.

– $50,000 for a bowl win

– $250,000 for a national championship.

– $50,000 for national coach of the year.

– $50,000 if the team is in the top 10 of the rankings in the final poll. (That would replace the $25,000 for being in the top 25 of the final regular-season poll.)

There’s also a $125,000 bonus for having an NCAA-measured Graduation Success Rate of 70 percent or better, but the funny thing about that is that the GSR scores are dated. The score released this fall, for instance, was based on the average of how the 2004-2007 freshman classes did. None of those groups were recruited by Johnson and much of the 2004 class was in the process of finishing up by the time Johnson was hired. Tech’s GRS is 66 percent, but expected to rise considerably in the next few years.

Tech’s Academic Progress Rate was 983, which netted a $75,000 bonus.

4. I’m not sure what uniforms Tech will wear, but I know the Jackets practiced in their white helmets this week, meaning they’ll be wearing them Saturday. Tech has worn white helmets four times this season – Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and N.C. State

Tech wore white jerseys and white pants against the Hurricanes and Tar Heels and white jerseys and gold pants against the Panthers and Wolfpack.

“I’ve always been for the white helmets,” safety Jamal Golden said. “I like the honeycomb jersey, too, but I don’t know what’s up with those.”

5. Tech defensive line coach Mike Pelton called Florida State’s offensive line, with four All-ACC choices, the best that the Jackets have faced. Tech’s defensive linemen are ready to give it a go.

“Who doesn’t know about Florida State?” Pelton asked. “Who doesn’t know about (Jameis) Winston? I think they accept the challenge. A lot of times you use it as a measuring stick. Hey, if you’re worth your salt, you want to play the best. You want to see where you measure up against them. Now, I think these guys, instead of being fans, you get to get out here and see where you stack up against the best.”

As he did last year, Pelton has done a commendable job. Last year, it was coaching up veterans in a new scheme. This year, it’s been bringing along players with little playing experience like Roderick Rook-Chungong, KeShun Freeman, Tyler Stargel and Patrick Gamble.

“Now they understand how to get under guys, not to get knocked off the ball, kind of like we were” at the beginning of the season, he said. “It’s still a process. Those guys have just got to continue to work the leverages and the hands and the escapes.”


 

6. Johnson on the wide receiver group:

“Ricky Jeune’s going to play some. I think they’re ready to play. What we’ve got to be smart and make sure is I don’t expect the same thing about of Corey Dennis that I expect out of DeAndre Smelter. They’re two different guys. What I’ve got to do is help Corey be successful and help Micheal (Summers) be successful. Micheal’s a really good athlete. He might be the fastest guy on the team. They’re capable. They’re going to plug into the system and we’ll find a way for them to help us.”

One thought about Darren Waller. He hasn’t been the most consistent player, although he’s finishing strong. But he’s shown up in a number of big games for Tech, including the 2012 ACC championship game (two catches for 59 yards), the 2013 Georgia game (one catch for 68 yards) and the bowl game against Ole Miss (two catches for 79 yards and a touchdown) and this year, the Georgia game (one catch for seven yards, a touchdown).

7. The forecast for Charlotte, N.C. , Saturday night, according to the Weather Channel, with a 60 percent chance of rain, possibly showers. Florida State has done a pretty good job holding onto the ball with 16 fumbles (tied for 45th in the country) in 817 offensive snaps, one per 51 plays. (It’s a somewhat inaccurate way to measure, as fumbles can also happen on returns)

The Seminoles have been looser with the ball when throwing it. Their 19 interceptions (17 by Winston) is tied for fourth most in the country. (Consider this, as we go down a rabbit hole – the four teams ahead of the Seminoles or tied with them were a combined 8-40. It speaks to the Seminoles’ remarkable ability to overcome mistakes, particularly Winston. His passer ratings this season, quarter by quarter – 111.2, 144.5, 153.0, 176.1.)

Tech is tied for 69th with 19 fumbles, on 847 plays, one per 45 plays. It’s still a considerable improvement on the Jackets’ fumble numbers over the course of Johnson’s tenure, during which they’ve averaged 2.5 fumbles per game. And the 19 includes at least two that were on returns – Jamal Golden against Wofford and Quayshawn Nealy against N.C. State – and the two in the Georgia game that were, at the least, questionable.

The following is irrelevant, but just interesting. According to cfbstats.com (where I get most of my statistics), Alabama was tied for the highest percentage of fumbles lost. The Crimson Tide has fumbled 15 times this season and lost 12 of them. Kentucky has the lowest rate, fumbling 20 times and losing just four.

Particularly on offense, I’d have to say fumble recoveries are largely chance. Alabama’s rate last year was 71 percent, 50 percent in 2012 and 33 percent in 2011.

Tech has lost 63 percent of fumbles this year. Previous rates: 39 percent (2013), 42 percent (2012), 35 percent (2011), 54 (2010).

8. Tight ends Florida State tight end Nick O’Leary will be one of the best tight ends that Tech has faced this season, probably the best. O’Leary has caught 44 passes for 517 yards (11.8 yards per catch) and five touchdowns. He was on multiple mid-season All-America lists and is a finalist for the Mackey Award, given to the top tight end in the country. (O’Leary’s grandfather is Jack Nicklaus and his father Bill played for Georgia.)

Tech has done O.K. against top tight ends. The Jackets have played against three other tight ends who were Mackey semifinalists.

David Grinnage N.C. State – two catches, 27 yards, one touchdown

Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech – one catch, four yards

Clive Walford, Miami (also a Mackey finalist) – two catches, 37 yards

9. I wrote in the takeaways from the Georgia game that I would address the two Justin Thomas fumbles later, which I apologize for not doing. I had a blog written that I wanted to edit a little bit before publishing, but the week got away from me.

This is a brief summary of what I wrote.

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You can barely tell, as he is obscured by Georgia defensive lineman Ray Drew (No. 47), but Thomas’ body is circled at the goal line. It’s possible, if he’s leaning forward, that he’s over the goal line. Thomas thought he was in. But that isn’t the critical part. What’s noteworthy is that defensive back Damian Swann, who stripped Thomas, is at about the 3-yard line (partially obscured by Tech guard Trey Braun, No. 78).

 

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From this image, Thomas is nearly or completely secured, but I think a reasonable person would conclude that he’s not on the goal line anymore and that forward progress has been stopped, which would mean the end of the play. Drew (left circle) ultimately brings Thomas down and is clearly off the goal line. Swann (right circle) is getting into the scrum.

Swann eventually runs off with the ball closer to the 3-yard line. So, for this to be a legal fumble, you would have to accept that a) Thomas lost control of the ball on the goal line; b) no player reacted to the ball being loose; c) the ball, despite being loose, didn’t fall to the ground.

The problem is that there’s no conclusive video evidence that the ball was secured by Thomas, enough to overturn the ruling on the field. Is it possible the ball was loose before Swann came in and grabbed it? I suppose yes, but it seems highly unlikely.

The second fumble, late in the fourth quarter, was also difficult to understand, based solely on the rulebook’s definition of a forward pass. From the NCAA rulebook:

“When in question, the ball is passed and not fumbled during an attempted forward pass.”
Thomas pump faked and appeared to lose the ball while drawing it back to his body. I don’t know if you could conclude that 100 percent. You could argue that he held onto the ball too long as he released it and it went straight down. Or, perhaps, that he began his throwing motion, decided against throwing it and tried to pull it back but ended up just releasing it down. Both don’t seem likely, but I’d contend are possible.
As best I could find (or not find), the NCAA rulebook does not address pump fakes or a “tuck rule.” (The NFL changed its rule a few years ago regarding pump fakes that a player who lost the ball while pulling the ball back after a pump fake is judged to have fumbled and not thrown an incomplete pass.)
Also from the rulebook:
“When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward toward the neutral zone, any intentional forward movement of his hand or arm with the ball firmly in his control starts the forward pass.”
Did he fumble when he pump faked? It looks like it. Can you be sure? I’d say not. And, also, as there doesn’t seem to be a rule to cover pump fakes, it would seem a tough one to keep a fumble.
Here’s a rather strange coincidence, though – a non-conference game between Georgia Tech and an in-state opponent swinging on a late-game fumble/forward pass call by an officiating crew assigned by the home team’s conference – does that ring any bells?
The first break that Tech got this season was an incomplete pass by Georgia Southern quarterback Favian Upshaw being ruled a fumble on replay, which enabled the Jackets to gain control of the ball and drive for the game-winning touchdown with 23 seconds remaining.
Remember, too, that play was ruled an incomplete pass on the field. Going back to the rule – “When in question, the ball is passed and not fumbled during an attempted forward pass” – it surprises me again that that call wasn’t upheld or at least allowed to stand. You can see the clips for both here.
I just think these things have a way of evening out. If you want to believe the SEC officials were trying to protect Georgia’s interests, then perhaps you also would believe ACC officials were doing the same for Tech. Personally, I find both ascribed motivations to be fallacious.

10. Earlier this week, Johnson related a conversation that he and his wife Susan had Saturday evening after the Georgia game.

“What a difference 53-yard kick makes in the whole outlook of everyone,” he said.

It is kind of funny. Had Harrison Butker’s kick fallen short, which it very nearly did, consider how different the reaction would have been. Tech loses another heartbreaker to the Bulldogs. Johnson still can’t beat Georgia. Can the Jackets recover from such a devastating loss to play Florida State?

If you step back a little bit, it really is a little nuts. Tech fans and Georgia fans have had complete opposite reactions to the game because Butker was able to make a 53-yard field goal. I mean, there’s a little more to it than that, but that’s a lot of it.

It ties back to something Johnson said a week or two ago, about how people are trying to make it sound like this is some crazy outlier season (heavy paraphrasing) when, in fact, it’s not so different from recent seasons.

Had Butker made his 43-yarder against Georgia a year ago and had Tech been able to make one or two more plays against Virginia Tech, the Jackets would have had a nine-win season and gone to the ACC championship game and a better bowl game. The team’s season would be different by three plays out of about 900, and yet would have been perceived entirely differently. (I’m sure I’ve written this before. Sorry if I have. But it’s just crazy to me how fine the line is between decent and great, how careers and families ride on the ability of 20-year-olds to execute those handful of difference-making plays.)

The 2012 season is the same way. One play against Virginia Tech and another against Miami and Tech avoids overtime losses to both, goes 8-4 instead of 6-6 and, again, the perception is completely changed.

But, I think, that is the difference between this team and the past few. Somehow, in a way that is almost inexplicable, the Jackets have made those plays this season. I think if the 2014 team were to play the 2013 team, the game would go into the fourth quarter, and somehow or another, the 2014 team would come up with a game-winning play, or the 2013 team would have made a critical mistake, and that would be it.

I know what you’re thinking, and my answer is, I don’t know which team would wear white.


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