Leading the charge for Georgia Tech’s offense this week will be a familiar name for the Virginia Tech faithful. James Graham was once committed to the Hokies in 2017 as an athlete who would have likely played wide receiver or defensive back in the maroon and orange.
Instead, the redshirt freshman finds himself as the signal caller for the Yellow Jackets this upcoming Saturday against Virginia Tech and former high school teammate Lecitus Smith.
“James Graham playing at quarterback is continuing in my opinion to get more comfortable every single week with what they’re asking him to do,” Fuente said. “We’re familiar with James. We had him in camp and loved him coming out of high school. So we know what he can do. He can really run, and is getting much better in the passing game.”
Graham became the starter for Georgia Tech five games into the season after the Yellow Jackets’ home loss to Citadel of the FCS and a 24-2 defeat against Temple. Since he was handed the reins of the offense, Georgia Tech is scoring 22.2 points per game as opposed to 13.5 before.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound quarterback is 68-of-144 (47.22 percent) passing for 922 yards, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. Graham has added 164 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
“He’s competitive,” Fuente said. “You love those guys that play quarterback in high school. And he may have gone on to play quarterback. Obviously, he is now, having success. But he played for a good program. Was a good, tough, talented player coming through the high school ranks.”
With Geoff Collins taking over the program, no one was perhaps happier than Bud Foster, as Georgia Tech’s triple option offense has given him headaches over the years.
“It’s pretty cool, to be honest with you,” Foster said. “I might have been the first one to call Paul Johnson when he retired. I still have a lot of respect for Georgia Tech.
“Last year they got after our tail — we should remember that. I know we’re going to have to play a big-time football game. That needs to be our focus — playing with great focus and execution, and respecting our opponent and playing a heck of a football game.”
Foster’s unit has seen rapid improvement as of late. The Lunch Pail Defense put together it’s best performance last Saturday, holding the high-powered Wake Forest offense to just 17 points and 301 total yards.
“I just feel like we’re all on the same page now,” said defensive end Emmanuel Belmar, who collected his fourth sack of the season versus Wake. “We have a lot of experience under our belt. Everybody is starting to play together and play as one. Everybody is starting to click and [we’re] just getting better every single week.”
In particular, the Hokies shut down any semblance of a rushing attack that the Demon Deacons threw their way, limiting them to just 63 yards on 29 carries (2.2 average). In fact, Virginia Tech’s rush defense has given up an average of 86 rushing yards per game since the Duke game.
When opponents are continually put into second-and-long and third-and-long situations, it’s allowed Foster to dictate what type of calls he can throw into the game.
“I think we’ve been able to stop the run a little bit better and get some people behind the sticks a little bit better,” Foster said. “You’re getting a guy like TyJuan Garbutt back healthy, and he has been able to create a lot of pressure. I mean he is a guy who got a (half a sack) this past weekend, and he is playing like the guy I talked about during spring and fall Camp. He did take a step back from his injury, but now he is starting to play better. Those young defensive tackles continue to improve, and they’re athletic, and those guys can create pressure.”
Garbutt, in particular, pressured Wake’s Jamie Newman on both of his interceptions. He’s rounding into form along with Dax Hollifield. Hollifield was hard on himself early in the season for the lack of rhythm he was able to find.
His production has also seen an uptick as of late, especially while moving over to mike for an injured Rayshard Ashby in the second half last week. (Note: Foster said Ashby tweaked his hamstring, but he has been practicing in the lead up to Georgia Tech). Hollifield picked off a pass and tallied six tackles and two quarterback hurries.
“Those guys continue to show up every single day and just continue to work on their craft and help this team,” Fuente said. “Dax is playing on special teams, and we all know that if we ask anything of him he’s going to give it his all. TyJuan continues to show up every day and work and try to continue to improve. That’s the key to anything, is continuing to have the consistency to do it every single day to give yourself a chance. It doesn’t always come immediately. We don’t know when it’s going to come, what form or fashion it’s going to come, but having that stick-to-itiveness every single day in practice is what those two have done. They’re getting to reap some of the benefits.”
So where does Foster want to continue to see improvement from his defense? It starts with third down defense. The Hokies are No. 75 in the nation, allowing opponents to convert on 40.5 percent of third down attempts.
“We eliminate yards after the catch, but I’d like to be better on third down,” Foster said. “That’s where we’ve been really good over the years. We’re in the 40-percent, upper-30 percent (conversion rate), and that’s not nearly good enough. It’s the full team, not just our corners. It’s our underneath team, our safeties, linebackers, and matching people up.”
Those corners for Virginia Tech are playing at a much higher level for Virginia Tech, though. Caleb Farley is first in the ACC and No. 6 in the nation with 14 passes defended. Meanwhile, Jermaine Waller has eight passes defended of his own, and the duo is tied for first in the ACC with three interceptions apiece.
“We push each other every day,” Farley said. “[Jermaine] wants to be the best corner in the country. I want to be the best corner in the country. Armani works like he wants to be the best corner in the country. We all push each other every day. We have big dreams, big goals, and we put in the work to do our best to make it there.”