ATLANTA — The heat of Georgia Tech’s season opener, combined with playing 26 snaps in the second quarter alone, was a withering conditioning test for the Yellow Jackets’ defense. It helped outside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, among others, realize he needed to improve his fitness.
“The conditioning level, especially off of last Saturday, it wasn’t where it needed to be,” he said. “Guys were definitely tired. We had guys cramping up.”
Duke, Tech’s opponent Saturday, will come after the Yellow Jackets with an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Much of the reason for the proliferation of no-huddle offenses is their debilitating effect on defenses. Elon also ran a no-huddle.
“It was good for me to be out there because I definitely need to be in game shape,” he said.
Nealy wasn’t quite staggering around the field. He recorded eight tackles and a pass breakup and was chosen the team’s defensive player of the game. Still, Nealy used the open date to get in some extra running and time on a stationary bike. Part of the defense’s fatigue resulted from the second quarter, when the Tech offense was on the field for four plays. The Tech defense went on the field for two consecutive series when linebacker Tyler Marcordes ended a 12-play Elon drive by returning an interception for a touchdown.
The weather should help the Jackets on Saturday. The forecast calls for a high of 75 degrees.
THIRD-DOWN CHALLENGE: One way Tech’s defense can limit its fatigue is by stopping Duke on third down. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has made it a priority this week after Elon was 6-for-16 in converting third downs. Improving defense on second down is part of it. Becoming more adept in the scheme is another. Elon took advantage of misplayed coverages to gain first downs.
“Those types of things, you can preach to ‘em and preach to ‘em and preach to ‘em and then when they see it (happen in a game), they’re all, ‘Geez, that really cost us,’” Roof said.
Defensive linemen have worked on staying in their rush lanes and getting their hands up when the passer is throwing. Linebackers and defensive backs have practiced staying tight on receivers and backs in pass coverage.
“It was all because of mental errors or us missing tackles and things of that nature,” Nealy said.
Duke has converted 17 of 31 third downs in its first two games.
HIGH PRAISE: Coach Paul Johnson said that kicker Harrison Butker’s kickoff work against Elon — seven touchbacks on nine kickoffs — is “probably pretty normal for Harrison. That’s what we’ve seen in practice. That’s what we saw in high school. We think he’s very talented.”
Were Butker to continue at that rate — 77.8 percent — he might finish the season as the best kickoff man in the country. Last season, according to cfbstats.com, UCLA led the country in touchback percentage at 76.4 percent.
“If he continues to progress like he has from high school all the way up to whatever, you’ll probably see him kick on Sundays,” Johnson said. “He’s got that kind of ability.”
TECH’S JOHNSON LIMITED IN RETURN FROM INJURY: On Tuesday, Georgia Tech safety Isaiah Johnson wore the blue practice jersey that healthy members of the defense wear in practice. It was the first time he wore it since tearing his ACL in December during bowl practice.
It was not, though, evidence that Johnson’s return is imminent. Johnson continued to stay out of contact drills in practice, much the same way he has been in recent weeks while wearing the gold jersey worn by players who are allowed to participate only in non-contact drills.
“Having that gold jersey on was just pretty much holding me back a little bit, so I think this blue jersey’s like a confidence booster,” Johnson said after practice.
Johnson has been cleared by doctors and is eager to play, but will not rush himself back to the field. He said he doesn’t want to return and play hesitantly. He also acknowledged that past Tech players whose NFL draft stock may have been hurt by playing through injuries is a factor in his caution.
“I’m taking (draft candidacy) into account, that I need to make sure that I’m all the way here before I step back out there on the field,” he said.
Johnson is a two-year starter and a valuable member of the Tech defense. His play improved considerably in the second half of last season before the injury. Jamal Golden started at free safety in the season opener.
In addition to his ACL, Johnson said he also tore his lateral collateral ligament and posterior collateral ligament and suffered a partial tear of his meniscus (“I got all the good stuff,” he joked) during bowl practice in December. About nine months have elapsed. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was hailed last year for his swift recovery from an ACL tear in about 8 1/2 months. Other elite athletes often require a year to return from an ACL tear.
Johnson, a senior, wouldn’t rule out not playing this season and taking a redshirt. Having played as a freshman, Johnson can sit out a season. He said he’ll come back when the knee feels consistent.
“I have plenty of days where it feels great,” he said. “Some days, I have those days when I feel it, and I know it can be better. I know it’s not going to be perfect, but I know it can be better.”
Coaches are letting him proceed at his own pace.
“I can’t tell him that you’re right,” coach Paul Johnson said. “He knows his body and he knows when he’s ready, and I’m not going to push a young man who’s coming off that and say, ‘Hey, go ahead, go ahead.’ … I don’t doubt that he wants to play, so he’ll let us know when he’s ready.”
Said defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who also coaches the safeties, “I have complete trust in him. He’s going to make a good decision because nobody wants to get back any worse than he does. And we sure could use him.”
INJURY REPORT: Cornerback Jemea Thomas was in a red jersey Tuesday, meaning he was held out of practice. Johnson did not mention Thomas during his news conference before practice, when he brought up the status of other injured players. Thomas is one of the Jackets’ top playmakers on defense. He would be replaced by D.J. White.
A-back Deon Hill will not play because of an illness. Johnson said Monday that Hill was questionable before downgrading him Tuesday. B.J. Bostic will probably start in his place.