Tech has the luxury of a crowded backfield

This is the final installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia Tech’s spring football practice, which begins Tuesday. Today: Running backs | Yesterday: Wide receivers

RUNNING BACKS
Who's gone: Jerry Howard (position change)
Who's back: Tony Amerson, Devin Ellison, Jamious Griffin, Christian Malloy, Jordan Mason, Dontae Smith
Who's new: Bruce Jordan-Swilling (position change)
Projected starter: Mason

Georgia Tech's only All-ACC player from the 2019 season, Jordan Mason, returns to the running back room for the Yellow Jackets. So does Jamious Griffin, the No. 2 running back prospect in the state of Georgia in 2019 (247Sports Composite). And waiting to enroll this summer is the No. 8 running-back prospect in the country in the 2020 class, Jahmyr Gibbs.

Running back was a deep position a year ago for the Jackets. But it would appear to be even more so, particularly when Gibbs arrives. When Tech begins spring practice Tuesday, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, running backs coach Tashard Choice and coach Geoff Collins will have the luxury of determining how to split playing time and carries with Mason and Griffin, not to mention backups such as Dontae Smith and Christian Malloy. Gibbs, expected to contribute this season, will only crowd the field.

“I think it’s probably the strongest group of the team, and that’s including the DBs,” said Roddy Jones, ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain.

Last year, Patenaude sometimes played to strengths with two-back sets, stationing them on either side of the quarterback. When Tech played one-back formations, as it often did, the backs rotated, with Mason getting most of the time. Mason finished last season with 172 carries, which accounted for 38% of all rushing attempts and 69% of rushing attempts by running backs.

Mason was entirely deserving of the carries — he ran them for 899 yards and seven touchdowns to earn third-team All-ACC honors.

“I think Jordan Mason showed he was the best player for Georgia Tech last year consistently,” Jones said.

Jones recalled Mason's performance against Miami, when he ran 20 times for 141 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown run in overtime in the Jackets' 28-21 upset win.

“He only scored one touchdown, but the fact that he broke so many tackles and was just the heart and soul of that offense and really broke the will of the Miami defense – I don’t want to say (he won the game) single-handedly, but, God, the number of people he made miss was unbelievable,” Jones said.

For Jones, the to-do list for Mason this spring are the basics — improve as a pass blocker, pass catcher out of the backfield, learn new downfield moves, better understand the game and defense.

Jones figures Tech to continue the rotation at running back next season. Likely, it would be Mason, Griffin and, pending his progress, Gibbs.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In limited action, Griffin showed similar potential to Mason last season. Perhaps the most memorable highlight of the season turned out to be a mere 5-yard run against Miami after a video review ruled he had stepped on the sideline before running downfield.

But it didn’t negate the arresting combination of power and speed that he showed when he took a handoff on a play originating from the Hurricanes 31-yard line, shed a tackle in the backfield as he ran right, turned the corner, lowered his shoulders to drive through a clot of three Miami defenders (with help from a block by wide receiver Adonicas Sanders), stumbled, regained his balance and motored down the sideline into the end zone. The play was reduced to a 5-yard gain after the video review.

The more that Griffin brings that ability out this spring, the more he’ll push Mason.

“It shows that Tech is building legitimate depth at that position,” Jones said. “Because you never know if Jordan Mason, after the season, he may decide to see what the NFL looks like. You’ve got to build that depth.”

Besides the potential trio of Mason, Griffin and Gibbs, Smith and Malloy had their moments, and redshirt freshman Devin Ellison appears poised to make a push in the spring.

Bruce Jordan-Swilling, who backed up at linebacker for his first three seasons, will also give running back a shot. Jordan-Swilling played running back in high school, earning All-American honors. Senior Jerry Howard, who played running back in his first three seasons, will start the spring at linebacker in something of an offense/defense trade.

THE SERIES

• Monday: Special teams
• Tuesday: Defensive line
• Wednesday: Linebackers
• Thursday: Defensive backs
• Friday: Offensive line
• Saturday: Tight ends
• Sunday: Quarterbacks
• Monday: Wide receivers
• Today: Running backs