Georgia Tech’s Sims more confident to face Huskies in opener

ATLANTA (AP) — Dave Patenaude said Jeff Sims is bringing new confidence into his second season as Georgia Tech’s quarterback against Northern Illinois on Saturday night.

Patenaude, the Yellow Jackets’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, has been amazed by Sims’ new understanding of the offense and belief in his skills in preseason practice.

“Some of the throws he’s made in the last two weeks, and him seeing the things he saw in the last two weeks, at this time last year he would have no idea to throw the ball there,” Patenaude said earlier this week.

Sims’ growth is crucial for the Yellow Jackets’ hopes to improve on three-win seasons in each of coach Geoff Collins’ first two years. Georgia Tech finished 3-7 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season following a 3-9 record in Collins’ 2019 debut.

Last year, the Yellow Jackets finished 14th in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring and points allowed as Collins stuck with young starters, including Sims and another freshman, running back Jamhyr Gibbs.

Georgia Tech returns seven players on offense and 10 on defense who started at least five games last season. An experienced offensive line has drawn praise from Collins and Patenaude, but Sims is the key.

“I definitely feel more comfortable this year,” Sims said. “It’s just putting in the work and staying in the playbook … watching film and just trying to learn every day.”

Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock is launching his third season following an 0-6 finish last year. The Huskies return 19 starters.

One of the few new starters for Northern Illinois is Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi, who adds crucial experience at quarterback. No other quarterback on the roster has completed a pass.

Lombardi, a junior, started six games and passed for 1,090 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions last season at Michigan State. A highlight was his two TD passes in an upset win over No. 11 Northwestern.

BIG CROWD NO BIG DEAL FOR LOMBARDI

Hammock has reason to worry about some of his young players’ poise in their first game in front of a big crowd following last year’s pandemic attendance restrictions. Georgia Tech is allowing 100% capacity, but Hammock knows Lombardi won’t be bothered by the noise after playing in the Big Ten.

“Rocky with his experience, his leadership qualities, it’s not going to be too big for him,” Hammock said. “He’s going to be a calming presence for our wide receivers, he’s going to be a calming presence for our offensive line to get guys lined up. We couldn’t be more excited to have him on our team and playing in this game.”

HAMMOCK’S RUN GAME

Hammock produced 1,000-yard seasons in 2000 and 2001 as a running back for Northern Illinois. He was the Baltimore Ravens’ running backs coach from 2014-18. It’s no surprise he’s emphasizing the run game as coach.

Hammock plans to bring seven running backs to Atlanta, including prized freshman Antario Brown from Savannah, Georgia. Northern Illinois says Brown is the highest rated signee in the program’s history.

PLAY SMART

Georgia Tech was called for 8.9 penalties per game last season to rank 121st among Division I teams. “The whole focus since January has been playing clean football,” Collins said. “Don’t hurt ourselves.”

HELLO AP TOP 25

Georgia Tech will play four teams in the top 10 of The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll: No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Georgia, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 10 North Carolina. No other team in the nation has four top 10 teams on its schedule. The Yellow Jackets also will play No. 14 Miami.

RECEIVER TO WATCH

Collins says his defense must know where Huskies wide receiver Tyrice Richie lines up on every play. Richie returns after having 100 yards receiving in four of six games last season.

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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