Tech football’s 5-6 2017 campaign marked a big step back from the previous year, where the Jackets went 8-4 in the regular season, beat the University of Georgia in Athens and capped the season off with a TaxSlayer Bowl win over the University of Kentucky on New Year’s Eve. On paper, the defense makes for an easy culprit. The defensive players allowed more points per game — 26.5, an almost perfectly average No. 64 of 130 teams nationally — than ever before in the Ted Roof era, an ignominy the program quickly acknowledged by parting ways with Roof at the end of the season and installing Appalachian State’s Nate Woody as the new defensive coordinator.
However, lost amidst the complaints about Roof’s defensive calls is the fact that Tech’s offense has largely failed to hold up its end of the bargain in recent years.From 2009 to 2014, the Jackets offense consistently topped 30 points per game. Over that span, the Jackets ended the season in the Top 15 twice and appeared in two Orange Bowls, winning one and also garnering a conference championship. From 2015 onwards, Tech has not topped 30 points per game even once. Perhaps as a result, their only time spent in the AP Top 25 has been a few weeks at the beginning of the 2015 campaign.
Woody will likely be granted some patience as the team’s new defensive coordinator, as he recruits new players for his unit and deals with the growing pains of a scheme transition, but offense is Head Coach Paul Johnson’s calling card. While Johnson is no stranger to criticism from Tech fans in particular due to his use of the triple-option, that rhetoric may reach fever pitch if the offense does not show signs of a return to its peak form in 2018.
The Technique examines the power players that will need to step up their game this season.
This is no surprise; even though Tech’s offense is not a traditional pass-first attack, it still depends upon the decision-making, and passing abilities, of its primary quarterback.
Last year, Marshall beat the now-retired Matthew Jordan in the competition for the right to succeed Justin Thomas, which was something of a surprise after Jordan seemed to have an edge the previous year. Jordan had in fact won a ranked game against Virginia Tech while relieving an injured Thomas. However, hours after being named the starter, Marshall quickly validated Johnson’s decision by rushing for 249 yards and 5 touchdowns in a heartbreaking 42-41 loss to Tennessee.
Yet it became fair over the course of the season to wonder whether Marshall’s transcendent performance was more a result of his ability or of the Volunteers’ porous defense, which was gashed by other runners down the stretch. Marshall was bottled up by Miami (19 carries for 18 yards), Clemson (15 rushes for 23 yards), Virginia Tech (22 rushers for 64
yards) and even Jacksonville State (13 rushes for 25 yards), and while his 17 rushing touchdowns were only five off Justin Thomas’ 22 career scores on the ground, he lacked consistency.
This time, Marshall returns as a senior with a firm hold on the starting job.
If he can make progress through the air (his 37.1 percent completion rate was the lowest in modern school history, courtesy of AJC.com, including seven straight games under 50 percent to end the season), it will make the offense less predictable and thus all the more dangerous.
To improve, Marshall will need some help from his receivers. 58.1 percent of his completions (and 58.8 percent of his passing yards) last season came thanks to Ricky Jeune, who is now in training camp with the Los Angeles Rams.
In 2016, Stewart was a good second option among the receivers, finishing with 382 receiving yards on 19 receptions. Last year he tallied a mere 99 yards on four catches. There are valid complaints to be made about the quarterback play of Marshall, but it leads to a chicken-or-egg question: was Marshall’s poor passing the result of inadequate support?
Successful Tech receivers in recent years have largely shared the same physical mold. Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Darren Waller, DeAndre Smelter, Ricky Jeune – all are tall, thickly built and strong at the catch point. Stewart lacks their physical prow-ess, making his first touchdown reception just last year as a junior. However, that stat is unusual. Stewart can be expected to build upon that momentum in his senior season. He will be targeted plenty as he is followed by two players that, when combined, only have a singular reception (Jalen Camp, Stephen Dolphus).
After two consecutive and highly productive freshman and sophomore campaigns from a statistics standpoint, Lynch was inexplicably given a small part in the 2017 Tech offense.
Yes, injuries were partly to blame – the explosive A-back missed a pair of games – but despite leading the team in yards from scrimmage the previous year at an incredible 11.2 yards per carry, Lynch only got 28 totes in 2017.
His three receptions for 43 yards were likewise a drop-off from the previous year’s 16 for 490, good for the team lead.
Lynch shares the A-back role with Qua Searcy, but as the team looks to fill the void in the receiving game left behind by Jeune, he should see many more opportunities. If his production looks more like it did in 2016, perhaps Tech’s record will as well.
Looking at the statistical drop-offs for key offensive contributors in 2017, it is tempting to be pessimistic about the team’s ability to recover in 2017. But such a sentiment would overlook the fact that Marshall is a highly productive rusher with a year of experience under his belt, Stewart will have the chance to be a key chain-mover for the Jackets again, and Lynch is a highly explosive player when given touches commensurate to his talent.
The day when these potentialities have the chance to become reality inches closer with Johnson at the helm.