For Geoff Collins, overhauling Georgia Tech's program has taken a two-pronged track. The first was upgrading the overall talent level and stocking the roster with more players who fit a modern system of offensive football after so many years running the triple option. The second has been about setting a standard of energy, effort and pace that most of the players he inherited simply didn't understand.
But as he heads into his third season, Collins' focus has shifted to putting a more detail-oriented team on the field. Georgia Tech finished last season ranked 121st in penalties among FBS teams, with 41 of the 89 penalties that were accepted by opponents coming before the snap. Beyond some of their other issues, including inexperience at quarterback and a defense that struggled to get opponents off the field, cleaning up those mistakes offers the best chance for the Yellow Jackets to make a leap.
"The culture is set," Collins says. "Now is the time to focus in on all the details that will make us take the next step in the development of our program."
Previewing Georgia Tech's Offense for 2021
The Yellow Jackets liked Jeff Sims' potential enough last season to ride it out with him through some freshmen mistakes, but they'll need him to be much more accurate throwing and consistent in his decision-making. "Jeff loves watching tape," Collins says. "He's so humble and has a tremendous amount of desire to get better in every phase. His comfort level and confidence in being able to direct the offense and knowing where to go with the football, there are tremendous improvements in that area as well."
There's a lot to like about Sims, including the fact that he had 25 runs of 10-plus yards and some flashes of competence throwing the ball downfield. But the bottom line is that he didn't have a 300-yard passing game last season, completed just 54.9 percent of his throws overall and had 13 interceptions.
Some of that wasn't his fault, as the Jackets' offensive line struggled in pass protection and committed 28 false start penalties, putting their quarterback in tough positions. That's why Collins hit the transfer portal to bring in potential upgrades at tackle with Kenneth Kirby, a two-time All-MEAC player at Norfolk State, and three-year Vanderbilt starter Devin Cochran.
An improved offensive line should benefit a deep and talented running back group led by Jahmyr Gibbs, who made a huge splash as a freshman (138.3 all purpose yards per game), along with Dontae Smith (6.9 yards per carry) and Jordan Mason, who was an All-ACC player in 2019 but struggled with injuries last season.
Previewing Georgia Tech's Defense for 2021
There will be a lot of pressure on co-coordinator Andrew Thacker to get more out of a unit that finished 14th in total defense in the ACC, gave up 5.86 yards per play (ninth in the league) and allowed opponents to convert 46.7 percent of third downs last year.
Georgia Tech is looking for growth from eight returning players with significant starting experience and several others who saw the field as backups, but the way the Yellow Jackets collected transfers on the defensive line suggests they weren't completely happy with their personnel at the point of attack.
Kevin Harris, a former four-star recruit who began his career at Alabama, will immediately upgrade the athleticism coming off the edge, while another intriguing addition is explosive end Keion White, who was an All-Conference USA player at Old Dominion in 2019 but sat out the 2020 season after transitioning from tight end to DE. Those additions should give the Jackets better depth, especially with 2019 starter at tackle T.K. Chimedza coming back after missing all of last year and celebrated Florida transfer Antonneous Clayton deciding to return to take one more shot at impressing NFL scouts.
At linebacker, Georgia Tech has been impressed with Maryland transfer Ayinde Eley, who projects to slide into the role vacated by David Curry (84 tackles) alongside senior Quez Jackson (80 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, two INTs).
The Jackets return their most productive defensive backs, led by safeties Juanyeh Thomas (59 tackles), Tariq Carpenter (five PBUs) and Zamari Walton (36 tackles), but that group must do a better job of creating big plays.
Previewing Georgia Tech's Specialists for 2021
Collins didn't have a lot of confidence in the kicking unit last year, attempting just eight field goals for the season and making only three between Jude Kelley and Gavin Stewart, both of whom are back this season. The Jackets recruited Steven Verdisco out of Tampa, Fla., to compete for that position as a freshman.
The Yellow Jackets also have a big hole at punter, where Ray Guy Award winner Pressley Harvin III has moved on. Georgia Tech recruited David Shanahan out of Ireland, where he played Gaelic football and rugby, to fill that role.
The feeling around the program is that the offense should be significantly better going into Year Three and that Georgia Tech is closer on defense to having the body types and physical attributes at certain positions that can win games in the ACC. But Tech must play more disciplined football at all positions to cut down on the penalties and mental mistakes.
National Ranking: 75
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(Jahmyr Gibbs photo by Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)