Change is in the air as Georgia Tech starts spring practice

Georgia Tech offensive lineman Mikey Minihan works on his shotgun snaps with quarterback James Graham under the eye of center Kenny Cooper (No. 55) at the Yellow Jackets' first spring practice, March 3, 2020, at the Brock Football Practice Facility. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Sheltered from the rain inside the Brock Football Practice Facility, change was afoot as Georgia Tech began spring practice Tuesday morning, the second under coach Geoff Collins.

Jersey numbers had changed. Players were in new positions. Players who ended the 2019 season with eligibility remaining were not present. A handful of new players were taking their first practice snaps as Yellow Jackets. Perhaps most pleasing to Collins on this rainy morning, a year after convening his first spring practice, his players had a much better grasp of what was expected of them.

In his first offseason, Collins said Tuesday, he and coaches had to use time in early-morning workouts to teach the players how to do the drills they would be performing in spring practice.

“You’re not having to draw a road map and walk ’em through it,” said Collins of a special-teams period. “They hit it, they attack it, we run, we move and we get a lot done. It’s a fun group to coach; there are a lot of great guys. Obviously, they’re highly intelligent and they’ve picked up things very quickly. But culturally, where we are through those 343 days since (the start of spring practice last year) is light years ahead.”

The hope for Tech is that the grounding in Collins’ methods will enable the Yellow Jackets to advance more quickly than they did a year ago. Tuesday, Collins took advantage of breaks in practice to call team leaders to him and share data on how efficiently the team was using the practice time. Collins, who has emphasized maximizing practice snaps, said that at one point the team cranked out 40 reps of a seven-on-seven period in a 10-minute period (presumably a period when multiple groups were drilling at the same time).

He also raved about the strength gains made by players in January and February.

“Just the work ethic, the size, the strength — all those things — it’s starting to look the way we want it to look around here,” Collins said. “And just excited about the way the guys practiced. Came out here regardless of the weather and put the ball down and played.”

Collins made an interesting decision in how he outfitted some of those guys, specifically the players who wore single-digit jerseys last season. Collins, who awards the prized uniform numbers based on their work ethic and commitment to the team, had no players in single digits Tuesday. Linebacker David Curry, who earned No. 6 last offseason, was back in his old number, 32. Safeties Juanyeh Thomas and Tariq Carpenter, who wore 1 and 2 last season, respectively, were wearing Nos. 28 and 29, their original numbers. Quarterback James Graham took snaps in No. 14 after wearing No. 4 last season.

While it would seem a motivational tactic and a reminder of Collins’ stress on his team being an “entitlement-free zone,” the coach chose to keep his motives private. In response to a question about the change in numbers, Collins gave an answer about how “we’ve got probably numbers-wise, there’s over 100 guys that are out here.” When a follow-up attempted to clarify the question, Collins responded, “Oh, I know what you meant.”

Some of those single-digit players were among those at new positions. Former quarterback/wide receiver Tobias Oliver was at cornerback. Jerry Howard, a running back in his first three seasons, took snaps at linebacker. Bruce Jordan-Swilling, back after a season-ending foot injury, had moved from linebacker to running back. Charlie Thomas, who played linebacker his first two seasons, shifted to the secondary. Luke Johns, previously a defensive lineman, was at tight end.

Collins said that Oliver will be at corner through the spring, adding that Oliver’s attitude and effort in January and February workouts was “everything we want in a Georgia Tech football player.” As he spoke, Oliver was walking off the practice field, among the last Jackets to complete his work.

At cornerback, “he’s able to affect the game on every single play,” Collins said. “Obviously, (he) has unbelievable physical gifts, but he is such a competitor.”

Jordan-Swilling and Howard both approached Collins about switching positions. Both have largely played backup roles through their first three seasons. Jordan-Swilling was an All-American running back in high school, while Howard is new to linebacker.

“I thought it was great for both of their personal, professional development, and it’s something they’re both excited about doing,” Collins said. “I still see a point in time where we do get Jerry some carries. I’m excited for both of them.”

Three seniors who redshirted their original senior seasons a year ago after undergoing season-ending surgeries — wide receiver Jalen Camp, center Kenny Cooper and defensive tackle Jahaziel Lee – were back on the field, although Cooper was mostly observing. Three other members of the 2019 team who had eligibility remaining — kickers Brenton King and Wesley Wells and offensive lineman Connor Hansen — were not at practice, having chosen to leave the team. King is on track to graduate this summer and has already accepted a job. Hansen also is expected to graduate in the spring. The departure of King and Wells opens up the kicking job, likely to be contested by early-enrollee freshman walk-on Steven Verdisco and a committed walk-on, Jude Kelley of Allatoona High in Cobb County.

New faces populated the field. Graduate transfer offensive lineman Ryan Johnson (formerly of Tennessee) was playing right guard, at one point putting a defensive end on his back. Early-enrollee quarterbacks Tucker Gleason and Jeff Sims tried to get a feel for the offense. (Gleason made one of the plays of the morning, a long touchdown strike down the middle to wide receiver Kalani Norris in an 11-on-11 period near the end of practice.)

The pace of change may slow when the Jackets practice for the second time on Thursday. Beyond that, not much else will likely slow down as Collins drives Tech through his second spring.

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