For the past four seasons, going up against Georgia Tech in the final regular-season game of the year has meant a date with quarterback Justin Thomas for the Georgia defense. But this time around, the Bulldogs will be seeing a new face on the other side of the line of scrimmage: junior Taquon Marshall.
In studying this season’s tape, Smart still found himself surprised by some of the attributes the Georgia Tech quarterback has exhibited in his first year as a starter.
“I’ve always thought he was a special athlete,” Smart said.
“But I didn’t know that he had the toughness that he’s had this year. He’s taken a lot of shots, and he runs that ball with a purpose.”
Senior defensive back Aaron Davis said he’s seen much the same out of Georgia Tech’s new signal-caller, referring to Marshall as “fearless,” and commenting on his explosiveness.
But with the offensive scheme remaining largely the same, Davis said he doesn’t expect a switch at quarterback to change the dynamic of the game to a significant degree.
“There’s not a big difference to me as far as how they’re going to play, how they’re going to try to attack us,” Davis said.
And while stopping the run will be the emphasis as it always is going against the Yellow Jackets’ triple option attack, both Davis and Smart admitted to being weary of Marshall’s arm. As Smart put it, “Taquon’s a really good passer.”
Davis, who has three games of experience against Georgia Tech, said that while the rushing yards can be painful, it’s the big passing plays that can really take the wind out of the Bulldog defense’s sails.
“Those are the plays that really break your heart that can really swing the momentum of the game,” Davis said.
Unlike Davis, defensive back J.R. Reed, who spent last season redshirting for Georgia after transferring from Tulsa, has never played a game against Georgia Tech, although he did admit to having to go up against one triple option team a year while he was in high school.
For Davis, it doesn’t really matter who’s quarterbacking for the system. After all, stopping any offense or offensive playmaker always comes down to one simple concept.
“We’ve just got to get after him and hit him and get him down,” Reed said.
Georgia must stop Tech's Triple Option
Decades ago, the triple option offense was a widely popular offensive scheme in college football, with a variety of schools using multiple running backs and a mobile quarterback to fool defenses and run wild.
But today, few major college football programs employ the triple option. Georgia Tech, which ranks No. 3 in the nation in rushing yards per game and will play Georgia in Atlanta on Saturday, is one of the exceptions.
The Yellow Jackets will be the only triple option opponent Georgia’s defense has faced since last season’s Georgia Tech matchup, a 28-27 Yellow Jacket win in Athens.
“It's a challenge,” Smart said. “It's why they're really effective offensively, because they're not the norm any more. People don't prepare to play that.”
Not only is Georgia Tech’s offense unique in college football, Smart said, but the scheme has even fallen out of style amongst high school programs, becoming what Smart called a “dinosaur.” Few Georgia players are familiar with the offense outside of Georgia Tech, at either the college or high school level.
To keep his defense prepared for the unique run game it will see against Georgia Tech, Smart said he has held what he calls “Tech periods” at the end of every Monday practice, where the defense practices against a scout team running the triple option.
“We’ve been working on it pretty much every week for a long time,” senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter said.
The periods, Carter said, enable younger players who have never played against the offense to gain some experience, but they also help the veterans stay fresh on playing the triple option.
“Sometimes you get rusty, seeing as you only play it once a year, but seeing it once a week, you stay on top of it,” Carter said.
Both Carter and senior defensive lineman John Atkins said one defensive trait in particular is needed in order to stop the triple option: eye discipline.
In Georgia Tech’s offense, the quarterback can hand the ball off, pitch it, throw it or keep it and run. For Georgia’s defense, it is important to not be distracted by all the potential places the ball can go and focus on the play.
If a defense is undisciplined, Atkins said, the Yellow Jackets have the ability to make a team pay. “If one guy messes up, he could run for like 80 yards,” Atkins said.
For the defense, eye discipline is something that has been stressed in practice all season, both in regular sessions and during Tech periods.
Should Georgia use their tight ends more?
So far in 2017, which has been a run-heavy year, Georgia’s tight ends have accounted for just 11.8 percent of the team’s yards through the air. And about a quarter of Georgia’s total comes from Charlie Woerner’s 50-yard run that included a hurdle over a defender against Missouri.
Last year, 19.3 percent of receiving yards came from tight ends, and in 2012, nearly 25 percent of receiving yards were produced by tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome.
Isaac Nauta has the most receiving yards in Georgia’s group of tight ends this year with just more than 100 yards, while Woerner, Jeb Blazevich and Jackson Harris combine for 10 catches.
Meanwhile, the position group has been tasked with less ball-catching and more run-blocking. As a senior who had more than 250 receiving yards as a freshman, Blazevich said his role as a tight end has evolved in this direction through his four years at Georgia.
Every year since 2008, Georgia has had a tight end finish the season in the top five on the team’s list of players with the most receiving yards. Eleven games into this year, Nauta stands as the top tight end and he’s sixth on the list. Last year, he had the third most receiving yards with 361 yards.
Against Kentucky, though, while the tight ends didn’t find themselves in the end zone, head coach Kirby Smart said their blocking helped enable multiple rushing touchdowns.
“I think one of the most overlooked things in college football is tight ends that can block because so many of them can't,” Smart said. “Ours have improved throughout the year.”
But when the tight ends do run routes, Smart said the ball is not coming their way because they are usually covered, thanks to how teams have been covering Georgia. When defenses are playing in man coverage to stop the run, the tight ends have not been open.
“I'm so engulfed in what we're doing that I don't know what people are so enamored with about the tight ends catching the ball,” Smart said. “If the tight ends get open, they get thrown the ball. … We've got plays designed to go to the tight ends, but they've been covered. It's not a matter of we don't want to throw it to our tight ends. We have no mutiny against them.”