In his comments at ACC Media Day in August of 2023, Brent Key previewed his expectations for the 2023 season, stating he expected the team to “play collectively” and “focus on the details.” He highlighted the need for consistency in the run and pass game and development from the remade receiving and linebacking core.
Seeing as Tech is midway through the season, now is a good time to assess whether they are meeting Key’s expectations yet.
The Jackets currently have a .500 record at 3-3. After narrowly losing their season opener to Louisville 39-34, they rebounded with a dominant 48-13 win against South Carolina State. They looked competitive against Ole Miss before faltering in the second half and losing 48-23 but then captured a great win on the road against Wake Forest: 30-16. Continuing to alternate between winning and losing, they were upset by Bowling Green, 38-27, after being projected as double-digit favorites, and got back to .500 against Miami on a thrilling last-second touchdown — and horrendous decision from Miami Head Coach Mario Cristobal to run a final play before the clock ran out.
Offensively, the Jackets have progressed from their second-to-last ACC ranking in 2022. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Haynes King led the ACC in passing yards and passing touchdowns through week six while the Tech offense is ranked seventh in the ACC. On the ground, redshirt sophomore running back Jamal Haynes is ninth in the ACC in rushing yards with 409 and ninth in yards per carry at 5.7. Freshman wide receiver Eric Singleton Jr. continues to be an offensive focal point — his 355 yards and five touchdowns are on a record-setting pace. He has claimed the starting role as Tech’s Z receiver, which takes advantage of his impressive acceleration to get open in space. The King-Singleton connection has been especially notable, but redshirt sophomore Malik Rutherford continues to impress as a playmaker from the slot position. Running receiver screens or trick plays with Rutherford has given the offense extra juice. The Tech offensive line also deserves credit for improving from last year – the unit has only yielded seven sacks in six games, which ranks second in the ACC, and is on pace to surpass the 39 sacks let up in 2022. Midseason freshman All-American left tackle Ethan Mackenny, redshirt sophomore left guard Joe Fusile and junior center Weston Franklin have fortified the left side of the Tech offensive line into an especially formidable force capable of protecting King.The consistency Key wants to see out of his offense is still a work in progress. Early in the game, the offense has little issue scoring, but they tend to falter in the second half. In their loss to Ole Miss, the Jackets were down by seven early in the fourth quarter, but could not respond to any of Ole Miss’s three consecutive scores in four minutes. Against Bowling Green, they only controlled the ball for 17 minutes to Bowling Green’s 43. Neither the Ole Miss or Bowling Green defenses are ranked in the top-50 of college football scoring defenses. Yet, against top-50 defenses in Louisville and Wake Forest, as well as a top-10 defense in Miami, the Jackets were able to either manufacture consistent offense or engineer it in the clutch. It is an interesting trend, but one that the Jackets’ offense will need to fix against opposing defenses in the back half of their schedule.
On defense, it has been more uneven for the Jackets. The losses of tenured and impactful players like former linebackers Ace Eley and Charlie Thomas and second-round NFL Draft pick edge rusher Keion White were always going to be difficult to fill. Injuries have also taken a toll — senior defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen tore his ACL in the first game of the year. However, the defense has struggled to stop opposing offenses on the ground and through the air. They have conceded the most rushing yards and total yards in the ACC at 1286 and 2606, the most yards per game at an average of 434.3 yards, second-most yards per play at 6.2 and third-most touchdowns at 20. Interestingly, they have been able to bait opposing quarterbacks into mistakes — their seven interceptions are tied for third in the conference. Still, even though the secondary is opportunistic and there are a few standouts like junior safety LaMiles Brooks, the communication issues and lack of overall effectiveness have been noticeable.
The mid-season promotion of linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer to defensive coordinator seems to be paying early dividends. In their first game under Sherrer, the Tech defense was able to hold a good Miami offense — ranked seventh nationally in offensive yardage per game — to 20 points. They still conceded over 150 rushing yards and allowed a 100-yard receiver, but they looked competitive and gave the offense enough support to mount their comeback with the timely forced fumble on sophomore Miami running back Donald Chaney Jr.’s unit will be a critical watch in the second half of the season as the Jackets look to improve the consistency of their new-look defensive scheme.
At 3-3, the Jackets are not out of consideration for a bowl game. The matchup with No. 1 Georgia looms large, but they should be expected to compete against a stacked slate of ACC rivals in Boston College, No. 10 UNC, Virginia, Clemson and Syracuse. Although the season has not been entirely smooth, the Jackets have performed well in their conference and seem to be coming together as a team. If the offense can continue to be explosive and the defense tightens things up, there is no reason why Tech cannot pose a threat to any opponents underestimating and underrating them.
The Jackets will take on the Boston College Eagles next at home in Bobby Dodd on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 12:00 pm.