ATLANTA -- With his right foot forward and hands hanging down, Jaquan Henderson lined up to the left of Georgia Tech’s defensive line.
The ball was snapped and the sophomore linebacker quickly read the play, skipping to his left and then charging an open hole, meeting Alcorn State running back De’Shawn Waller in the gap. Henderson wrapped Waller up and pulled him down, allowing the Alcorn back to barely gain just a single yard.
The third quarter play wasn’t flashy and hardly drew a roar from the Ramblin’ Wreck supporters, but it was an example of the consistently solid and smothering style of play that Henderson and the Yellow Jackets provided for 48 minutes on a scorching Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Henderson, a native of Covington, saw the field often in the Yellow Jackets’ season-opener, playing for a defensive unit that stopped the Alcorn State Braves from reaching the end-zone. Georgia Tech won its first game of 2018 by a score of 41-0 over Alcorn State in front of an announced crowd of 39,719 fans.
The victory was the first shutout Tech’s defense had put up in 57 games.
“I thought that defensively we played pretty well for the most part,” said Yellow Jackets’ head coach Paul Johnson. “I mean, if you don’t give up any points, you’re probably never going to lose, right? So that was a positive. But at the same time, with what we want our standard to be, we missed some opportunities… But all in all, our defensive effort was certainly better than (it was on) offense.”
The Yellow Jackets’ offense was led by senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who accounted for a pair of touchdowns, throwing for 104 yards and rushing for 77 more. Redshirt freshman Jordan Mason was Tech’s leading rusher, tallying 85 yards on 11 carries.
In total, the Yellow Jackets rushed for 439 yards.
Mason helped Tech start the game off quickly and efficiently, scoring on a 28-yard run that capped off a game-opening drive of just four plays that spanned 68 yards.
But then the Braves’ defense made a brief stand, forcing a Tech fumble and then a Yellow Jackets’ punt on their next two possessions. Alcorn also came up with a second quarter interception, but never capitalized on Tech’s mistakes. The Braves fell behind 20-0 at halftime and never stepped foot in the end-zone.
Tech’s offense got itself together in the second half and poured on more points, while the defense remained stingy and opportunistic.
For the second Tech score in the third quarter, junior defensive lineman Brandon Adams forced Alcorn’s Marquise Forman to cough up the ball. Redshirt junior and Buford native David Curry scooped it up and charged 15 yards into the end-zone for a touchdown.
Kaleb Oliver notched Tech’s other takeaway, an interception in the second quarter. Tech’s defense also came up with four tackles for losses.
Alcorn failed to pass or rush for 100 yards, getting just 69 yards through the air and just 77 yards on the ground. The Braves punted nine times.
Based on how the defense shined, the early judgement is that Johnson made the right move by hiring Nate Woody as Tech’s new defensive coordinator. Woody came to Tech this offseason after a stint at Appalachian State. The Yellow Jackets didn’t crack the top 100 in FBS last year in tackles for loss, sacks or turnovers, and also blew leads against Tennessee, Miami and Virginia. Johnson hopes that Woody and his 3-4 defense can change that.
“The defense was flying around. I thought they did a phenomenal job getting us back on the field,” Marshall said. “2-of-11 for Alcorn State on third down? I mean, that’s pretty dang good… It was exciting to be on the sideline and watch the defense work. They looked like they were having a lot of fun out there.”
The new system is already showing benefits for Henderson. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Newton High School graduate saw playing time on special teams and on defense against Alcorn as the “jack” linebacker.
In Woody’s system, the jack is a hybrid combination of a linebacker and defensive who often lines up on the edges. The jack often rushes, but can also be a quarterback-spy when facing a scrambling play-caller or be someone who can drop into coverage.
When called upon, Henderson excelled in all of those areas on Saturday. Fellow linebacker Curry likes to call him “Sonic,” likening him to the quick-footed blue hedgehog of Sega Genesis fame. Henderson finished the day with three tackles. Playing in 11 games last year, he finished with just six tackles. If Game One is any indication, Henderson should pass that mark easily.
“I didn’t think there was any fall-off with the linebackers, from guy-to-guy. Everyone ran to the ball, everyone played well,” Curry said. “Jaquan Henderson… he’s fast as lightning. I thought he played really well. I’m very happy with the linebackers. We were aggressive and we ran to the ball.”
Another Covington native and Newton high graduate saw playing time for Tech in the fourth quarter. Josh Tukes, a linebacker, played some on defense and punt return. It was the first collegiate game of his career as he redshirted last season.
While the Yellow Jackets won their season-opener by a wide margin, they identified several things they want to improve on next week. Their next game is Saturday, Sept. 8 against South Florida.
“Your greatest improvement is from game one to game two, and we need that to happen,” said senior linebacker and captain Brandt Mitchell. “We had a lot of mistakes that are going to cost us in bigger games down the road… Personally, for me, I missed way too many tackles today. We’re flying to the ball, but just little things like communication… I think this week, tackling will be a big emphasis for us.”
>> There are three players from Georgia playing for the Braves this year. De’Shawn Waller, an Atlanta native, rushed for seven yards. Sophomore quarterback Felix Harper, of Fairburn, tallied 21 yards of offense. And senior defensive tackle Derrian Meminger, of Sparta, had two tackles. Alcorn State is the four-time defending champs of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Eastern Division. They are coached by Fred McNair, the older brother of the late great NFL quarterback, Steve.
“My hat’s off to Paul and his crew. They do an outstanding job in the things they do. We’ve just got ot get better as a team,” McNair said. “We just didn’t get it done today. In some aspects of the game, I thought we could’ve been better.”