Wide receivers’ playmaking abilities can help evolve Tech’s passing game

Georgia Tech wide receiver Ahmarean Brown makes a touchdown catch over North Carolina State defensive back Jakeen Harris Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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

WIDE RECEIVERS
Who's gone: Nathan Cottrell, Jair Hawkins-Anderson, Omahri Jarrett
Who's back: Josh Blancato, Ahmarean Brown, Jalen Camp, Stephen Dolphus, Malachi Carter, Marquez Ezzard, Peje' Harris, Kalani Norris, Tobias Oliver, Zach Owens, Adonicas Sanders
Who's new: None
Projected starters: Brown, Camp, Ezzard

In coach Geoff Collins’ first season at Georgia Tech, perhaps no player stood out more with big plays than wide receiver Ahmarean Brown, with the possible exception of running back Jordan Mason.

With blinding speed, a knack for adjusting to the ball in flight and exceptional ball skills, Brown became a favorite target of quarterback James Graham. With his straight-line speed and his quickness in getting in and out of cuts, Brown routinely got behind defenses already wary of his speed and averaged 18.9 yards per catch. His seven touchdown catches tied for third most among freshmen in FBS and tied Calvin Johnson’s school record for most touchdown receptions by a freshman.

When Tech begins spring practice Tuesday, Tech coaches will be seeking to develop receivers who can be similarly dangerous in the passing game. Receivers Adonicas Sanders and Malachi Carter will return as starters along with Brown. Other returnees, notably Jalen Camp, Tobias Oliver and walk-on Josh Blancato, also will try to find their places.

As in the secondary and defensive line, where safety Derrik Allen and defensive end Antonneous Clayton will be eligible after sitting out last season as transfers, receiver Marquez Ezzard will be ready to challenge, as well. Ezzard, a Stockbridge High grad who transferred to Tech after one season at Miami, was a force on the developmental team, which prepped the Jackets defense for its coming opponents.

“He makes really difficult catches routinely,” then-senior safety Christian Campbell said in November. “It’s not like, Oh! He made a (great) catch. You’re kind of used to it now. It’s, ‘All right, Quez made another catch.’ It’s kind of one of those things.”

Georgia Tech wide receiver Marquez Ezzard (11) participates in drills last summer.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Camp is expected to be ready to go after season-ending surgery following the fourth game of the season, at Temple. The return of Camp for his fifth-year senior season gives Tech four receivers with significant starting experience, along with Brown, Carter and Sanders. It can be easily forgotten, but Camp was expected to play a big part last season before his injury.

But it’s conceivable that Ezzard could prove himself as capable, if not more so, as the returnees.

“He’s going to be really good,” coach Geoff Collins said emphatically in December. “So we’re excited about him. He works hard every single day. I’m very pleased with our receiving corps; (receivers coach) Kerry Dixon’s done a great job with them. But he’s going to be a really good addition, and he’s already on the roster.”

In the same interview, Collins shared how Ezzard has shown a caring and uplifting attitude toward him. He said that Ezzard made a habit of checking on him “at least 11 times a game,” telling him he was making great calls and asking him if he was doing OK.

During the week, Collins said, Ezzard stops by his office once or twice "just to come in and tell me he loves me. 'You good, coach?' 'Quez, I'm good, buddy, how are you? I'm supposed to be checking on you.' "

With expected improvement on the offensive line (notably the addition of Tennessee grad-transfer guard Ryan Johnson) and a competition at quarterback (James Graham and Jordan Yates), Tech coaches would undoubtedly love to see the passing game make progress. A year ago, Tech was 124th nationally in passing yardage per game (133.9), 121st in passing efficiency rating (106.02) and tied for 116th in yards per attempt (6.0).

Improvements in quarterback play and pass protection would lead to more opportunities for the wide receivers. The group showed playmaking ability, both in coming down with balls and running after the catch, and can play its part in producing a more potent passing game. The spring figures to uncover which of the returnees will make the strongest bids to make the largest contributions. After Brown, Sanders and Carter had the biggest roles last season, with 19 and 16 receptions, respectively. Camp had seven catches in four games.

Signees Avery Boyd, Ryan King and Nate McCollum, a talented trio who will bid for playing time, are scheduled to arrive in the summer.

It could be a big spring for Oliver, who last spring practiced at quarterback before switching to receiver during the season. Speaking before the end of last season, Campbell offered a tip on sophomore Kalani Norris.

“He’s not a big guy, but I think he runs really good routes, and he’s really fast,” Campbell said. “He just has a really good competitive edge to him. It’s something either you’ve got or you don’t. You can’t teach it, and he just has it.”

THE SERIES

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

In Other News