The most challenging question facing Geoff Collins in his first season at Georgia Tech: What can a group of players recruited to play in Paul Johnson's triple-option offense do in a completely different system? To find that answer, Georgia Tech has left no stone unturned. While Collins and his staff plan an eventual roster makeover, they're aiming to compete now using Johnson's recruits by moving many of them to new positions, toggling some between offense and defense and experimenting with personnel groups that will feature the best players used in a variety of roles.
For Collins, it's not a completely foreign approach — player versatility was "part of our DNA as an organization" in his previous stop at Temple — but it was taken to the extreme this spring with approximately 20 players seeing time on both offense and defense. Given that lack of clarity, Georgia Tech enters 2019 as one of the biggest mysteries in college football.
Previewing Georgia Tech's Offense for 2019
The transition from the option to what Collins calls "an NFL-style, spread-based attack" that threw the ball almost as much as it ran at Temple is going to require some creativity from coordinator Dave Patenaude's staff. Coaches will have to oversee the development of new skill sets and also redistribute some of the talent from running back to receiver (Nathan Cottrell, who had 46 carries last year, is being developed to play the slot) while finding a tight end, a position that didn’t even exist under Johnson (the Yellow Jackets will rely on UConn graduate transfer Tyler Davis to fill that role).
Settling on a quarterback will be the biggest challenge, since all three potential starters were recruited with the option in mind. Tobias Oliver showed flashes of big-time ability last year as a redshirt freshman, but he attempted only 16 passes. Redshirt junior Lucas Johnson, who missed last year due to a foot injury, was a proficient passer in high school but hasn't seen many live snaps. James Graham, a highly recruited dual-threat athlete, redshirted last year. Still, Collins has an optimistic view of what he inherited, saying that his players have embraced the terminology, timing and throwing motion Patenaude teaches.
Georgia Tech will have plenty of depth at running back — freshman Jamious Griffin, Jordan Mason (6.1 ypc, seven TDs) and Jerry Howard Jr. (5.3 ypc, five TDs). But the key to the running game could be how well an offensive line with a decent amount of starting experience transitions to a new style of blocking, where they'll often be asked to play in a shotgun stance.
Previewing Georgia Tech's Defense for 2019
The trademark of Collins' defense from coordinator stops at Mississippi State and Florida was a group that played with "swag" and "juice," forced teams into uncomfortable situations and then brought mayhem with unique third down packages that created a lot of sacks and turnovers. That won't be easy to replicate right away, not after inheriting a group of linebackers and defensive linemen who haven't played many snaps.
The secondary will be the bedrock of Georgia Tech's defense, with junior safety Tariq Carpenter (55 tackles, two INTs) and sophomore corner Tre Swilling (24 tackles, six PBUs) establishing themselves as potential standouts last season and former backups Kaleb Oliver and Christian Campbell catching Collins' eye in the spring. Sophomore Juanyeh Thomas, who established himself as a strong kick returner last year, will also be asked to do more at safety. But will that be enough to balance some concerns up front, where Antwan Owens is the only significant contributor from last season returning?
It helps that Ja'Quon Griffin and Jordan Domineck, both redshirt freshmen, got a handful of snaps last year. But essentially, Georgia Tech is starting over on the defensive line, which explains why they rotated two offensive linemen over every day during spring. Former starting center Jahaziel Lee could end up sticking on that side of the ball, while Brad Morgan and Connor Hansen have shown some ability.
Though there's a lack of depth at linebacker, senior David Curry (47 tackles) is solid, and sophomore Quez Jackson could be poised for a breakout season.
Previewing Georgia Tech's Specialists for 2019
The Yellow Jackets have solid specialists returning with placekicker Wesley Wells, who made all nine field goal attempts as a freshman, and strong-legged punter Pressley Harvin III (41.3-yard average). Thomas, who brought a pair of kickoffs back for scores last year, could be one of the country's most dangerous returners. Collins has focused on improving kickoff accuracy and coverage.
Though Johnson had a fruitful 11-year run on The Flats, Georgia Tech fans have embraced both the stylistic change and the high-energy approach of Collins, who is well positioned to elevate the level of recruiting from the previous regime. It's no secret that moving away from the option will present some initial challenges as the roster turns over, but Collins and his staff have tried to be resourceful in getting "a 360-degree view of every player on our roster" to see how they can contribute in a new system. If he can get Georgia Tech to a bowl game in Year 1, that effort will be considered a big success.