Behind Enemy Lines: Duke football at Georgia Tech

Before every football game this year, The Blue Zone will sit down with a football writer from the opposing school’s student newspaper to get the scoop on their team and season.

This week, The Chronicle’s Nick Martin spoke to the The Georgia Tech Technique's Sports Editor Mark Russell about this weekend’s ACC Coastal clash between Duke and Georgia Tech.

The Chronicle: [Georgia Tech quarterback] Justin Thomas has been one of the names that jumps out at you on the stat sheet. He's already racked up more than 500 yards on the ground and seems to doing a pretty efficient job managing the passing game. What are you guys seeing from him and how does he stack up to quarterbacks in the past?

The Technique: When Thomas committed to Tech, everyone knew he had talent because he was originally an Alabama commit and everyone thought he would go there and get a chance to play quarterback. But Saban told him he was going to play cornerback. So we pretty much have a kid with 4.2-speed running our offense.

Having him run the triple-option is a completely different breed of athlete than what we're to used to having. Last year with Vad Lee, everyone thought Lee was going to be really good but he never really adapted to the offense. He never really wanted to run the triple-option, he wanted to run a spread, pistol Oregon-style of offense. When Thomas came in, he bought in this year. I'm surprised we're 5-0, but I'm not surprised he's playing well. He's led us on two big game-winning drives against Georgia Southern and Virginia Tech, which is kind of rare. Tech went [five] years without a game-winning drive and know they've had two in back-to-back weeks.

TC: Thomas has certainly been outstanding thus far, but he's not doing it alone. Can you tell me a little bit about Deandre Smelter? Georgia Tech has a couple shining examples of wide receivers in years past, so what does Smelter bring to the table that Georgia Tech hasn't had in the past few years?

TT: His coming out party was basically against Duke last year where he had two catches for two touchdowns. He came in last year as a junior having two years of eligibility left and he used to be a top prospect in baseball. He was supposed to be a first round draft pick by the time his third year came around but tore his shoulder up. He entered the [football] team hoping to play special teams and it took him about six games last year and it was obvious he was our go-to receiver.

When you have a player like that in the triple-option who's getting single coverage, if he can make someone miss, he's going to get the ball. He's the best receiver we've had since Stephen Hill. Hill was a second-round pick in the NFL and he was someone who [head coach Paul] Johnson recruited but he didn't have great hands. He had really good speed but he'd drop a lot of balls. Smelter seems to have pretty solid hands, so he's definitely the best receiver Tech's had since Demaryius Thomas.

TC: At the beginning of the season and even after the Georgia Southern game, a lot of people seemed to be sleeping on the Yellow Jackets. Now that has this team been to take down Virginia Tech and Miami, what is this team showing that is making people take notice?

TT: I expected this year, five wins worst-case scenario, seven wins best-case scenario. And everything we did over seven wins would be overachieving. You're looking at the schedule and you're thinking, 'Wow, this team could win nine games, no problem.' So it's all be a surprise. Johnson was kind of on the hot seat to start the season. A lot of fans were upset at the way the program had done the last three seasons and they really wanted to beat Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson and [Georgia]. We've knocked two of those big four off.... Right now, everyone's ecstatic.

TC: Outside of Georgia Southern's explosion, it seems like the Yellow Jackets have done a pretty good job of holding other teams in check. Duke has shown in the past that it can be an explosive team, so what on defense makes you confident that Georgia Tech can replicate last year's victory, in which it pretty much shut down Duke?

TT: Last year, our defense was phenomenal. They were top 20 in the country and one of the best rushing defenses in the ACC. They outplayed the offense pretty much the entire season. This year, it's been the other way around. We had three guys get drafted to the NFL, we had some seniors graduate and after the Southern game, they decided to have everyone play off the ball and eliminate the big play. Against Virginia Tech, their goal was to force Zach Brewer to make mistakes, which he did. Against Miami, their goal was to force Brad Kaaya to make mistakes, and he threw two interceptions. That's how they're winning games. They're getting timely turnovers on defense.

What Tech plays defensively actually goes right into what Duke excels at on offense. They're to give Crowder and Boone and McCaffrey all the time in the world to make the pass.

TC: Final question: What do you have as the final score for this week's game in Atlanta?

TT: 42-38 Georgia Tech.

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