A rush of players to the transfer portal following a disheartening end to the 2021 season and a significant shakeup of the coaching staff have left Geoff Collins in a difficult position.
Despite the acknowledgment that there would be rough waters as Georgia Tech transitioned away from the Paul Johnson era and his triple-option system, Collins enters his fourth year with an unhappy fan base and real pressure to show progress on the field.
It would be one thing if there were discernible momentum undergirding those results and clear evidence of a breakthrough in the near future. Instead, the Yellow Jackets have almost as many personnel questions now as they did when Collins got the job and are banking on new assistants to make an immediate impact through development and scheme tweaks.
Previewing Georgia Tech's Offense for 2022
Losing Jahmyr Gibbs, who transferred to Alabama after being Georgia Tech's leading rusher and second-leading receiver last season, is a major blow to an offense that hoped to become more dynamic.
Though Collins was able to supplement his skill positions through the portal with Hassan Hall from Louisville (7.2 ypc on 38 attempts) and Dylan McDuffie from Buffalo (1,049 rushing yards and 11 TDs), this is almost a total reset for coordinator Chip Long, who was brought in to replace Dave Patenaude and install a more aggressive scheme. Long, the former coordinator at Memphis (2016), Notre Dame (2017-19) and Tulane (2021), will make some noticeable scheme changes, such as less shotgun and utilizing formations with multiple tight ends.
But ultimately, the Yellow Jackets are either going to need quarterback Jeff Sims to take a major step forward in his third season as a starter or hope that Akron transfer Zach Gibson, who was highly accurate in his five starts last season, is good enough to beat him out. Former Clemson signal-caller Taisun Phommachanh also joined the team after spring practice. Sims enters as the favorite because of his size, experience and dual-threat potential but has been prone to indecision and mistakes, with 20 interceptions in 18 career games. Georgia Tech hopes that working with new quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke, the former Heisman winner, will unlock the next level of his development.
The Jackets are also going to need some of their young receivers who have been in the program, like Malik Rutherford and Kalani Norris, to become reliable playmakers and supplement senior Malachi Carter, who tied for the team lead with 37 receptions last year.
Perhaps the biggest concerns, though, are up front. Besides 6'6", 333-pound right tackle Jordan Williams, who looked like a potential star last season, this is an inexperienced unit that needs immediate production from Alabama transfer Pierce Quick, who could slide into the left tackle position, and Clemson transfer Paul Tchio, who could start at right guard.
Previewing Georgia Tech's Defense for 2022
Coordinator Andrew Thacker was spared in Tech's coaching purge despite his unit allowing 455.2 yards per game and ranking at or near the bottom of the ACC in other key statistical categories like sacks (20) and interceptions (three). The rationale is that Collins did not want to depart from the 4-2-5 scheme he ran with a lot of success at Temple, and there's belief within the program that a number of younger players they've developed are poised for success.
Having said that, this is a unit that lost eight of its top 11 tacklers either to graduation or transfer and will need several players who got a bit of experience last season to step up, particularly in the secondary and the pass-rushing positions like sophomore ends Kyle Kennard (3.5 TFLs), Noah Collins and tackle Zeek Biggers. Georgia Tech got a significant late addition up front in Memphis transfer Morris Joseph, who had 4.5 TFLs last season and will likely slide into a starting tackle position next to Makius Scott, who filled a backup role last season after transferring from South Carolina.
If that group can hold up, Tech could showcase some big-time playmaking ability in the middle of the defense with senior linebackers Charlie Thomas (70 tackles, 10 TFLs, three sacks) and Ayinde Eley (90 tackles, three QB hurries) along with safety Jaylon King.
Collins says there's been "marked improvement" from a young group of talented defensive backs. Corner Kenyatta Watson, a transfer from Texas, seems particularly poised for a breakthrough after a strong spring.
"I just think that group as a whole has bonded at a really high level," Collins says.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2022
Previewing Georgia Tech's Specialists for 2022
Gavin Stewart and Jude Kelley are likely to compete for the open job at placekicker, while David Shanahan averaged 41.5 yards per punt as a freshman. Bringing in Hall should juice the return game, an area of struggle last season. He's taken back 95 kicks for an average of 24.9 yards with two scores.
Collins, who came into Atlanta as a relentless marketer with a constant social media presence, has taken a lower profile this offseason. He knows that talking is useless: It's time to win. But that won't be easy, given the inexperienced roster and a brutal schedule that opens with Clemson and includes nonconference games again Ole Miss, UCF and Georgia. Even if there is some improvement, it may be difficult to break out of the Jackets' run of three-win seasons.
Given the amount of turnover among players and coaches, this season will either be a new beginning for Collins or the beginning of the end. With so many questions surrounding the roster, it's fair to be skeptical.