8 things to know before Georgia Tech-Mercer

DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 03:  Patrick Gamble, Freddie Burden, Antonio Simmons, Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Trey Klock of Georgia Tech celebrate victory over Boston College in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic Ireland 2016 at Aviva Stadium on September 3, 2016 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by Patrick Bolger/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***

Undefeated in Europe, Georgia Tech will try to go 1-0 on North American soil Saturday. (Photo by Patrick Bolger/Getty Images)

1. Among unsung heroes for Saturday’s game is Chris May, Georgia Tech’s director of athletic grounds and sports turf. He has brought Grant Field a long way from the spring, when parts of it were patchy and devoted. Paul Johnson offered his compliments this week.

“I think Chris May’s done an unbelievable job on that field,” he said. “I see him, he’s out there seven days a week. That’s his baby, and we’ll see when we play four games in a row, but right now it’s really good. I give him a ton of credit. He busted his tail on that, he really has.”

May has replaced Jon DeWitt, the excellent caretaker of Tech’s athletic fields, who left in the summer for a similar job at Alabama.

2. Two pretty strong quotes from Johnson this week,  the first about the offensive line, the second about his message to the team:

“We’ve got to do a better job coaching them, that’s for sure. But I think that sometimes, they’re too smart for their own good. They want to try to outsmart people instead of just sometimes, you just have to put your hand down and come off and hit people in the mouth. You can’t get the perfect angle every time.”

“It’s about who you want to be and what you want to be. Do you want to be dead average, because the way you played on Saturday is, at best, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and call you average. Or do you want to be good, and if you want to be good, you’d better work and come out and play better and play harder. More physical. More accountability. I mean, it doesn’t take ability to look at who you’re supposed to look at. That’s not hard. Everybody should be able to do that, as opposed to stand and try to guess what play’s coming. Just do your job and do it to the best of your ability as hard as you can do it.”

3. One facet to watch Saturday will be quarterback Justin Thomas’ tosses and option pitches to the A-backs and B-backs. They were often off target against Boston College, evidently for a variety of reasons. The spacing between Thomas and the backs was sometimes off, the turf was slow and wet, preventing backs from getting to full speed, and sometimes the tosses weren’t on target.

4. When Tech was driving for its eventual game-winning touchdown, cornerback Lance Austin had belief, he said, and particularly in A-back Qua Searcy.

Austin was a two-way player at Lamar County High, playing quarterback and defensive back. Among his targets on offense was Searcy, a wide receiver. Along with his twin brother Lawrence, Lance Austin and Searcy led Lamar County to a state runner-up finish in their senior year.

“I knew where ‘Smoov’ (Justin Thomas) was going with it the whole time,” Lance Austin said.

Not terribly related, but moderately interesting: Given it’s a matchup between in-state opponents, there are ties between teams. The Austins have one. They have a cousin who’s in the Mercer band.

5. With special-teams duties split up among the coaching staff, cornerbacks coach Joe Speed has a critical duty with the kickoff team.

“It’s going to be my job in charge of the kickoff team not to mess Harrison up,” Speed said. “He does a great job and he consistently puts it in the end zone.”

Butker put all four of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. A year ago, he was 12th in the country in touchback percentage (66.1 percent). The last was his most critical. After his extra-point put Tech ahead 17-14 with 35 seconds left, coaches were faced with the choice of either a sky kick – in which Butker would hang the ball in the air, sacrificing distance for hang time, and direct the ball towards a preferred returner – or go with the straight kickoff. The latter would have more distance, but give Boston College a better chance at a runback if Butker couldn’t get a touchback.

Speed and coach Paul Johnson put their faith in Butker, who delivered with his fourth touchback.

“Coach told me, ‘Make sure he kicks it deep in the end zone,’ and Harrison did just that,” Speed said. “So, not too hard.”

6. In his first game as a full-time starter, cornerback Step Durham played probably the best game of his career. Among those he owed thanks to was a former teammate also making a transition in his own career.

Following the win over Boston College, Durham was named the defensive player of the week. He was credited with three total tackles and two pass breakups for the Jackets. A junior, Durham has had to wait his turn behind D.J. White and Chris Milton.

“I think I take it as a learning experience of getting better,” he said Tuesday. “I thank D.J. and Coach (Joe) Speed for where I am now.”

Durham said that White, a sixth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, taught him how to analyze game video and study receivers’ tendencies and showed him what it meant to improve and compete at the college level.

“He’s like a big mentor, kind of a big brother,” Durham said.

White is expected to get playing time when the Chiefs open their season Sunday against the San Diego Chargers (including former Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu).

7. Mercer sold out its 5,000-ticket allotment, a crowd that will include about 1,000 students taking buses up from school on Saturday. Undergraduate enrollment at the Macon campus is about 4,600. There should be an even larger presence of orange and black Saturday. There are about 30,000 Mercer alumni in the metropolitan Atlanta area, which is also where the school’s largest satellite campus is.

8. The Mercer team’s travel plans tell a little of the difference between FBS and FCS teams. Players will stay on campus Friday night and bus up to Atlanta Saturday morning. The Bears won’t be able to have a walk-through on Friday, but it will save a night’s stay in a hotel, which would have cut into the $300,000 guarantee that the athletic department is receiving for playing the Jackets. (For Tech, a hotel stay is de rigueur, even for home games.)

Mercer coach Bobby Lamb said that he’ll try to get the team to Bobby Dodd Stadium around 12:40 p.m., about 20 minutes earlier than usual, to give players time to walk around the field and acclimate themselves to the surroundings. Mercer’s Five Star Stadium seats 10,200.

“At the end of the day, it’s the old ‘Hoosiers’ line – the field is 120 yards long, 53 1/3 yards wide,” Lamb said. “You’ve still got to play. They’re smart enough to know that.”

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