It seems like a lot has happened since Georgia Tech last played a football game, and a lot has definitely happened when the Yellow Jackets have recently played at Miami, where they’ll tangle with the Hurricanes on Saturday for sole possession of first place in the Coastal Division of the ACC.
The Jackets (3-1, 2-0 ACC) practiced especially hard on special teams, where head coach Paul Johnson has seen uneven results, and this week they’ve focused on a No. 11/10 Miami (4-0, 2-0) team that’s kind of difficult to read.
“We worked the fool out of it last week,” Johnson said of Tech’s special teams. “Hopefully, we’ll see some improvement. If not, I have no idea what we could do with it . . . We worked on all of it. Kickoff coverage, punt coverage, kickoff return, punt return. We went live, looked at all kinds of personnel.”
The Hurricanes are fast as usual, yet they carry asterisks.
While the Jackets were idle last Saturday, Miami rallied to win late at Florida State but lost junior running back Mark Walton — the ACC’s third-leading rusher — to an ankle injury.
Then head coach Mark Richt said that starting receiver Ahmmon Richard did not practice Tuesday because of a nagging hamstring.
However, the Jackets are not taking the Canes lightly to be sure.
“They do have speed, but we have speed, too,” said senior defensive back Step Durham. “I think it’s going to be a really good matchup.”
The Hurricanes are ranked No. 5 in the ACC in total offense, averaging 470.8 yards per game, No. 4 in rushing (198.3) and No. 6 in passing (272.5). Junior quarterback Malik Rosier has been Miami’s catalyst, completing 58.2 percent of his passes while throwing 11 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. The Canes have not lost a fumble and that, as much as anything, helped them beat Bethune-Cookman, Toledo, Duke and Florida State.
As for Rosier’s top targets, senior wide receiver Braxton Berrios looks the part of an NFL slot receiver. The 5-foot-9, 186-pound senior has caught 18 passes for 282 yards and five touchdowns, including eight catches for 90 yards and two scores at FSU.
Next up is big tight end Christopher Herndon IV of Norcross High School. The senior has 13 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown.
Tech has played well defensively, and the Jackets are operating upon the assumption they’ll have to continue if they are going to win at Miami, where they’ve dropped four-straight and have not won during Johnson’s 10-year tenure as head coach.
“I think when you simplify things you’re able to play faster and we’re able to fly around to the ball,” said linebacker Brant Mitchell. “The whole defense gets a feel for each other and we start playing better as the year goes on. Hopefully, we’ll continue to build on that this week.”
With that in mind, the Jackets spent their bye week focusing both on ball security on offense and forcing turnovers with their defense. Tech has lost eight fumbles and gained two.
“Absolutely,” Mitchell said. “That’s what we’ve really got to work on is our takeaways.
On the flip side, junior quarterback TaQuon Marshall — who on Monday was voted by teammates to be a captain along with senior defenders KeShun Freeman and Lawrence Austin — has not thrown an interception and the Jackets have picked off four passes defensively.
Tech is playing faster on defense than perhaps in years as coordinator Ted Roof is calling more blitzes and the Jackets are stunting more up front.
“I think the biggest thing is [Roof] trusts us,” Durham said. “Having experience allows us to do the things that we’re doing. I think that’s what it comes down to, having the confidence in your players to call something.
“We have what, two years together coming in to know each other? Most of our secondary is seniors, and we’ve got A.J. [Gray], who plays like a senior. So we know each other.”
The Jackets know they’re in for the toughest test of the season so far and the Hurricanes offer a step — or two or three — up from Pitt and North Carolina.
“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do . . . We just focus on one game at a time,” said senior defensive end Antonio Simmons. “We don’t look ahead to Wake Forest, Clemson . . . we just focus on Miami.
“That’s our biggest challenge right now. They’re undefeated, almost a top-10 team. We’ve got to do our job.”