Georgia Tech Jahaziel Lee (53) celebrates as their football game goes into the final moments against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Nov.11, 2017, in Atlanta. (Photo/John Amis)
Photo: John Amis
Photo: John Amis

Georgia Tech banks on lessons learned at retreat

Georgia Tech will don helmets, jerseys and shorts Wednesday for the first practice of the preseason, beginning the day-by-day grind on the march to the season opener against Clemson and coach Geoff Collins’ first season with the Yellow Jackets.

Forecasts for the next month call for heat, collisions and severe discomfort. In ways figurative and literal, the Jackets will be miles separated from a deluxe lake house where 17 team leaders kicked back for two days with Collins and members of his staff on a leadership retreat on the last weekend of May. In other ways, though, Collins and attendees hope that experiences and lessons from that two-day trip to Lake Burton will be fresh enough to bear dividends in the sweaty toil of the preseason and the crucible of the Jackets’ 12-game regular season.

“We grew so much closer, as (did) the coaches who were there and the players,” linebacker David Curry said. “I can’t even describe how special it was.”

Collins had led similar trips the past two years as coach at Temple. With the help of strength-and-conditioning coach Lewis Caralla and Derrick Moore, Tech’s character-development coach, Collins re-tooled the retreat to focus on bonding players and staff together through sharing their stories, along with having a measure of fun.

“It was awesome,” Collins said.

The group was mostly seniors and a few younger players. Besides Curry, others included quarterbacks Lucas Johnson and Tobias Oliver, offensive lineman Kenny Cooper, wide receiver Jalen Camp, defensive lineman Jahaziel Lee and safety Juanyeh Thomas.

Speaking earlier this month, Curry and Camp said they were both impacted by an activity in which each player or staff member was asked to reveal something personal about himself, jumping off from the prompt, “If you really knew me, you would know …” Curry said that players shared intimate stories about themselves, whether it was trauma suffered in childhood, the death of family members and best friends and other emotionally charged matters.

Curry said he learned things about teammates who are close friends that he had no idea about, and that his eyes were opened “to a lot of different things about people.”

“All that kind of stuff that you just look at somebody and you’re just like, how are you still where you’re at?” Curry said. “It’s just unbelievable what you’ve been through.”

In another exercise, players shared what they respected or appreciated about the person sitting next to them.

Also, “there’s just certain things that happened, commitments that were made, without getting too much into the weeds, but it was a special time,” Collins said.

From such an intense time of sharing, “now you want to fight for that guy even more just because of what they’ve been persevered through to get to this point,” Camp said.

And, from a football sense, that is the benefit for the Jackets – players who will push themselves harder not to let down teammates who have become more invested in each other through such acts of respect and trust. It potentially was a pivotal moment in Collins’ endless efforts to formulate a team environment that can appeal to recruits and help win championships.

“Every single day, as we’re building the culture, there’s new experiences that have never happened before that we’re having to experience together to take another step,” he said. “And those steps are going to have to be taken a lot until we get the culture established. And this is the process that we have to go through to be great.”

Camp and Curry said that the 17 players had begun to lead other teammates in the exercises after summer conditioning workouts.

“It may sound dumb, but you really don’t realize how close that makes a team, and it’s really been worth it,” Curry said.

Since Collins’ hire, Curry has seen the way that players interact with one another changing. In the past, he said, “a lot” of players did not accept criticism from teammates well. There is a lot less bickering, he said.

“Now it’s like, if we call you out, we like to say we’re attacking the problem that you’re bringing to the team, not attacking the person,” Curry said. “So a lot of guys are realizing that now and not getting as defensive, and if they do get defensive, you’ve got three or four other leaders on the team to back that guy up, to say, ‘Hey, we’re not putting up with that.’”

There will be other, more tangible, issues to engage once the whistle blows Wednesday afternoon. The Jackets need to develop depth on the offensive and defensive lines. Coaches have to determine which freshmen can be counted on to play this season. Position battles will heat up.

If Collins’ hopes are founded, all those matters will be determined by players pursuing greatness of self and team, demonstrating a bond that began to tighten at a lake house in the northeast corner of Georgia.

“It was such a humbling and amazing experience to go through,” Curry said, “and that carries now back to the rest of the team.”

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