Georgia Tech quarterback Lucas Johnson (7) hands off to running back Jordan Mason (27). (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

A crowded picture at running back for Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech running backs coach Tashard Choice spills over with enthusiasm for the players in his charge. It is not a surprise for a man whose passion for football and the alma mater where he now works is easy to detect.

Nathan Cottrell: “I love Nate Cottrell. His whole senior campaign is going to be an awesome year.”

Christian Malloy: “He’s good in blitz pickup, and he’s running the ball well. So don’t count out Christian Malloy.”

Jerry Howard: “He started off a little slow, but now he’s ready to roll.”

Dontae Smith: “Dontae Smith has been a big surprise from the spring.”

Here’s Choice’s dilemma: First, Tech may use a lot of one-back sets in offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s offense, as he has historically used “11 personnel” — one back, one tight end, three receivers — about 70 percent of the time, Patenaude said last week. Second, Choice acknowledged that, because of the need to help backs gain a rhythm carrying the ball, he’ll likely rely on two or maybe three running backs in a game to carry the ball.

Third, after the aforementioned four backs, there are at least four more scholarship running backs who are vying for playing time, including the running back who gained the most yards last season for the Yellow Jackets (Jordan Mason) and highly touted freshman Jamious Griffin.

As Tech pushes its way through the preseason, Choice is having to divvy up practice repetitions into narrow portions, develop his players and figure out a pecking order. Players are dealing with their own stresses.

“It’s competing for a job, so you can’t slip up,” Mason said. “One day I can slip up and Dontae, he’s doing better than me. Me and Dontae slip up, Christian can come in. It’s a job. I look at it as a job. So I’m out there competing every day for the starting position.”

It appears that Smith, a redshirt freshman who did not play last season, Mason and Howard are in the lead, but there is no shortage of competition after that.

“We don’t get as many reps because we have so many guys, but we’re just trying to be the best guys we can be and then show our talents every play,” Malloy said.

The depth is one of the outcomes of the change in offensive schemes made in the coaching transition from Paul Johnson to Geoff Collins. In addition to the four players who would have been B-backs – Mason, Howard, Malloy and freshman Tony Amerson — the running backs group also includes former A-backs Cottrell and Smith and a freshman who likely would have been an A-back, Devin Ellison. Griffin began to consider Tech only after the coaching change, joining Amerson and Ellison as running-back signees.

That makes eight, and former A-back Omahri Jarrett, now at slot receiver, also is a possibility.

One solution is the use of more two-back sets, which seems a likelihood given Patenaude’s desire to play to the team’s strengths. Another way that Choice is trying to ease his playing-time challenge is by stressing that players know the entire offense and be able to fit into different spots. Cottrell, Smith and Ellison also are learning slot receiver. Special teams is another way to get on the field and become a necessity to dress for games.

“We’ll see (how many running backs suit up for games) once we get closer, but if they can do multiple things, they give themselves more opportunity to get on the football field,” Choice said. “And so, position flexibility, doing that and also playing special teams, those are ways that you can get on the bus where you get a chance to play.”

Because practice repetitions are split in so many ways, knowing the offense and taking full advantage of opportunities have become even more important as players try to make an impression. Choice said that a player making plays with the ball in his hands will be important, but so will avoiding mental mistakes. Holding onto the ball and picking up blitzes are also highly valued skills.

The benefit for Tech is that, whoever manages to emerge from this derby will be a most qualified candidate.

“I think anybody could play Aug. 29 (against Clemson in the season opener) if they wanted to,” Howard said. “And so everyone’s just going as hard as they can, and it’s just, let the best man win. but you just keep cheering them on, because that’s how we are. We’re always like brothers in there.”

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