Pete Sampson: What have you learned from the first two games and what can’t you determine because the competition was so poor in Alcorn State and Tulane?
Jonathan Leifheit: I think the first thing is the offense and I think we’ve figured out that offensively this is a pretty darn good team. The A-backs and B-backs situation was a question mark coming into the year. Yes, they did it against lesser competition, but you have to look at how they’re doing it. I think both questions have been resolved with B-back Patrick Skov (fullback) and A-backs Broderick Snoddy and Isiah Willis (wingbacks). The wide receivers are still up in the air. We haven’t seen them tested.
Defensively, I still have some questions about the line and the ability to rush the passer. I think they’re going to be decent against the run, but the pass rush is unproven. The secondary hasn’t been as good as expected, but we expected them to be pretty darn good. Coverages need to tighten up a little bit. This is going to be a big jump in competition this weekend. They’re not going to get lulled to sleep at the back like maybe they have in two blowouts.
PS: Quarterback Justin Thomas was outstanding last year. Do you see improvement in his game?
JL: I think his passing is better, much better than last year. He’s been on target the first couple games and the passes that he’s missed have been very close. He’s made throws into tight coverage, putting the ball into small areas. Decision-making has picked up where it left off last year. I’m not sure I’ve seen improvement there, but as a passer he’s better.
PS: When I talked to you in the off-season you mentioned the return of defensive lineman Jabari Hunt – academically ineligible last season – being a big deal. Has it played out that way?
JL: He has played but he’s still learning (listed No. 1 on the depth chart at nose tackle). You’ve gotta remember that Hunt was a linebacker two years ago. He was supposed to be a defensive end after that. He just kept growing and now he’s up to 292 pounds. He’s still learning how to play the position, but he’s been a huge boost to the defense. What his return has really been able to allow is for Tech to take Patrick Gamble and move him back to end after playing inside last year. He’s got really good size and is one of those prototypical 3-4 defensive ends at 6-foot-5, 282 pounds. He really makes a big difference out on the edge, particularly against the run. They can put him inside in passing situations and he really offers a lot of flexibility.
PS: Notre Dame’s strength has been Will Fuller and the deep ball. What does Georgia Tech have at cornerback?
JL: Their No. 1 corner is D.J. White. Basically any time Tech needed a big play last year, he was the guy who made it. He’s good. I wouldn’t say he’s an incredibly gifted player physically, but he has good speed, is very smart. He’s baited a number of quarterbacks into interceptions during his career (five interceptions). The other corner is Chris Milton, who’s solid but not spectacular. Both of them are decent together. Neither is an All-American candidate, but they’re not scapegoats either.
PS: You mentioned the A-back and B-back improvement this year. Break down what Georgia Tech has there.
JL: Skov is a graduate transfer from Stanford (younger brother of Shayne Skov) and he’s a punishing player and a very physical player. He’s really been a standout so far (23 carries, 122 yards, four touchdowns). Behind him Tech has Snoddy at A-back, who’s really smooth, a unique player for that position (seven carries for 86 yards).
PS: Last year against Navy, Notre Dame played sort of a 4-4 front. Not sure how this scheme will go, but there’s a good chance Jaylon Smith is on the outside. How does Tech deal with athletic outside linebackers?
JL: If he’s outside that probably means the A-back will be blocking him, but they could also drag a receiver to block him and loop the A-back outside depending on the scheme. You could see an offensive tackle go after him too, but if he’s as fast as people say I’d be surprised is that happened too much because he’d see that guy coming.
PS: The dynamics of this game are interesting with Georgia Tech right now because it feels like they’re on the cusp of being mentioned as a potential College Football Playoff team. How much is that a target for the program?
JL: Yeah I think it is. It’s been interesting to listen to the players talk because they’ve had that feeling for quite a while now. They want to win everything, not just the ACC. Yes, fans believe that if you want to be mentioned nationally that you have to win this game. But just take Justin Thomas as a leader and he’s taking more about how the media has picked Tech last in the ACC before so why should they start listening to them now? To me, that’s an interesting thing about Tech because I haven’t heard that before. I’m anxious to see how they react on the big stage on Saturday and even more so if they win because then they’d really get a lot of praise.
PS: If Tech gives Notre Dame trouble on Saturday, what are the keys that strike you?
JL: Stay on schedule with first and second down, even if that sounds cliché. Tech has been good on third down when it’s a good distance. If they want to win, particularly against a team like Notre Dame, you have to stay on schedule. If it’s first down and they get stopped, setting up 2nd-and-long, it could be a long day.
The B-backs have to play well too. Skov has been very good and is the body blow guy. Marcus Marshall then comes in as more of a speed guy at that fullback position. When that gets going on the inside, then the A-backs become really hard to get. That could really be a surprise for Tech.
PS: If Notre Dame slows the option it has to win on the line. What does Tech have in its offensive front?
JL: They returned four of five starters from last year. The left tackle and the left guard are both multi-year starters. The new guy is Shamire Devine, listed at 6-foot-7, 366 pounds. When he gets his hands on you, forget about it. The problem is that he’s probably closer to 385 and needs to be more like 350.
Tech will probably play eight players on the line on Saturday, at least seven. You’ll see a three-guard rotation and a three-tackle rotation, with the possibility of a couple centers to play too.