A look at how the position groups shape up with the incoming freshmen:
James Graham joins returning starter TaQuon Marshall, sophomore Lucas Johnson and redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver. Graham was one of the bigger signings of Tech’s class. He was the Jackets’ only prospect ranked in the top 60 in the state of Georgia. (He is 38th, according to the 247 Sports composite ranking) Most likely, Graham will redshirt next season and compete for playing time in 2019.
“He’s a really good runner,” Johnson said. “I think he throws the ball well enough. It’s just going to be a question of how quickly he can learn and move forward, but we’re excited about him.”
Johnson is hoping that Johnson and Oliver can challenge Marshall for playing time. Tech lost Matthew Jordan, who gave up his final year of eligibility because of a foot injury, and Jay Jones, who transferred.
Tech will add three running backs – Christian Malloy, a B-back, and A-backs Dontae Smith and Tijai Whatley. Malloy could shift to A-back also. Whatley, who is 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, represents the desire of Tech coaches to get bigger at that position. Clinton Lynch, Qua Searcy and J.J. Green, who took most of the snaps at the position last season, are slighter and smaller in build.
Johnson was looking for bigger A-backs, more in line with past players such as Anthon Allen and Synjyn Days. Malloy (5-10, 200) would also fit that mold.
“Right now, a large number of our guys are smaller, quicker guys, so to balance it out, we’re looking at a little bigger guys at that position,” Johnson said.
Jaylen Jackson is listed as an athlete, but could be grouped with the A-backs. Johnson noted in December that he was a speedy kick returner, which might help him get on the field quickly as Tech tries to improve its kick-return game.
From the group of backs, the only significant loss is A-back J.J. Green. Johnson said he wants to find playing time for redshirt freshman B-back Jordan Ponchez-Mason, possibly at A-back. Leading rusher KirVonte Benson returns at B-back for his junior season.
The Jackets will add two more tall receivers, Malachi Carter and PeJe’ Harris, both 6-3. Johnson said that Charlie Thomas, an early enrollee who was listed as a defensive back in the early signing period, will probably start out at wide receiver also.
It’s eight deep with scholarship players, but two-year starter Brad Stewart is the only one in the group with more than one career catch. (Jalen Camp has one.) Given that freshmen have come in previously to win playing time – Stewart and Camp, for starters – there’s a chance for the incoming trio to get on the field.
Tech loses Anthony Messick and Ricky Jeune, who led the team in catches for the past three seasons. Johnson called his departure “a big loss.”
While Shamire Devine has graduated, it appears the line will have considerable experience back. Left guard Parker Braun is a two-year starter. Center Kenny Cooper, offensive tackles Jahaziel Lee and Jake Stickler and guard/tackle Will Bryan all started six games or more in 2017. Further, offensive tackle Andrew Marshall, who started nine games in 2016 but missed all of the 2017 season with a foot injury, is expected back for his delayed senior season.
The likely outcome for the three signees – Harrison Jump, Michael Maye and Zakk Mckeehan – will be to redshirt. Three seniors will play their last in 2018 – Bryan, Marshall and Stickler – and then there portends to be even more openings in 2020, as there are five scholarship juniors.
Tech is also waiting on the NCAA to answer a waiver claim from Jack DeFoor, a transfer from Ole Miss.
The line will add four freshmen into a potentially crowded group, particularly now that the alignment will shift from a 4-2-5 (four defensive linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs) to a 3-4 (three linemen, four linebackers). There are 14 scholarship linemen for new line coach Jerome Riase, including the freshmen.
Johnson said that one of the freshmen, early-enrollee T.K. Chimedza, had surgery and will miss spring practice, a time when players will be learning a new defense and fitting into new positions.
The new defense and the depth should make for a competitive environment. The group only loses ends KeShun Freeman and Antonio Simmons.
“I think everything’s wide open,” Johnson said.
Given the returning experience, getting into the rotation will be a challenge for the freshmen, Ja’Quon Griffin, Luke Johns, Austin Smith and Chimedza. Johnson did say Wednesday, though, that the defensive coaching staff “feels like (Griffin) can come in and compete right away for some playing time.”
The linebackers have the reverse situation as the line, as there are now four spots where previously there often had been only two. There are three linebackers in the signing class, Justice Dingle, Quez Jackson and the aforementioned Jordan Domineck. Dingle is a highly regarded prospect, Jackson has the look of an under-the-radar signee and Domineck played defensive end in high school but is projected as a linebacker, likely on the outside.
Johnson said that Dingle is “fighting” to keep off weight. He’s listed at 6-3, 245, and Johnson said he could quickly get to 260.
“He has a chance to play any of the four (linebacker spots),” Johnson said. “At least three of the four linebacker spots.”
Victor Alexander, the team’s leading tackler, returns, as does two-year starter Brant Mitchell and Bruce Jordan-Swilling, who showed a playmaking knack as a freshman. Part-time starter Terrell Lewis graduates.
Tech will go from five spots in the secondary to four, and returns one starter, safety A.J. Gray. Three defensive backs will join the mix – Jaylon King, Juanyeh Thomas and Zamari Walton, all 6-foot-1 or taller as Tech tries to get bigger in the defensive backfield.
It’s likely new defensive coordinator Nate Woody will be testing and moving around players in the spring. In going over position groups, Johnson mentioned Gray at safety and added “if that’s where he ends up.” He may not be the only one to move. Johnson also brought up safeties Tariq Carpenter, Kaleb Oliver and Avery Showell.
“There’s a bunch of those guys that, they could end up being safeties, could end up being outside linebackers,” Johnson said. “So that’s kind of where it is.”
Nickel back Lawrence Austin, cornerbacks Lance Austin and Step Durham and safety Corey Griffin – all starters – completed their Tech careers last season.