Previewing Georgia Tech spring practice: Running backs

Going into spring practice, Georgia Tech’s three running back spots are firm at the top, with the return of All-ACC B-back KirVonte Benson (1,053 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns) and A-backs Clinton Lynch (career 9.6 yards-per-carry average) and Qua Searcy (four scrimmage plays of 30 yards or more in 40 touches in 2017).

Benson was highly productive after assuming the starting job following the dismissal of Dedrick Mills in August. Now a junior, Benson didn’t even play a snap at B-back as a freshman before putting together five 100-yard rushing games in 2017.

“He’s kind of like a bowling ball,” said Matthew Jordan, a former Tech quarterback who was a senior last season. “He’s low to the ground, low center of gravity, hard to tackle. He’s really strong. I mean, he’s one of the strongest guys on the team, pound for pound.”

Benson now can use the experience gained in his first season as a starter and continue moving forward. The bank of experience is even deeper for Lynch and Searcy, both going into their senior seasons.

“The goal for them is, don’t get complacent, don’t relax,” said former Tech A-back J.J. Green, who was a senior last season. “Teach the younger guys also to go hard because it’s your last year. Getting complacent, being relaxed, that’s when everything starts to go downhill. If you’re going to be the senior leader, you lead by example. Don’t lead from the back.”

In the spring, Benson will be at the head of a group of four scholarship B-backs – junior Quaide Weimerskirch, sophomore Jerry Howard and redshirt freshman Jordan-Ponchez Mason are the others. At A-back, there’ll be a relatively small group of five scholarship players. Besides Lynch and Searcy, there’s juniors Nathan Cottrell and Omahri Jarrett and sophomore Xavier Gantt.

Two signees are slated for A-back, Tijai Whatley (Darlington School in Rome) and Dontae Smith (Spring Hill, Tenn.), and a third, Christian Malloy (Parkview High), could play either A-back or B-back.

Cottrell joined the A-back rotation as a sophomore and ran 33 times for 271 yards, including a 69-yard sprint against Virginia Tech, the longest run by a Yellow Jackets running back since Synjyn Days ran the same distance in the Orange Bowl in 2014. The spring could be helpful for Cottrell to build on his first season in which he was fully a part of the offense after mainly playing a special-teams role as a freshman.

“I feel like Nate is going to explode this year,” Green said.

Green spoke highly of Gantt, who played in two games last season as a redshirt freshman, and Jarrett, who played in 10 games as a sophomore last season, perhaps making his biggest impact as a kick returner in two games at the end of the season. Green said that Gantt might be the most explosive player in the group (“it’d be between him and Qua”), while Gantt might be the most explosive (“because he’s got big calf muscles.”)

With a relatively small group this spring, both will have the opportunity to accrue practice repetitions. What both need is to develop consistency.

“It’s all film study,” Green said. “Just being consistent in practice. Coach (Lamar Owens) gives you a chance to show what you can do in practice, don’t mess up, don’t overthink it.”

At B-back, a young group (none will be seniors) will have plenty of competition, going four deep in scholarship players. Jordan said he thought that Ponchez-Mason, who practiced last season at both B-back and A-back, should benefit from the cross training and could be a better fit at B-back. (Jordan would know, having played a little bit of A-back in 2015 before moving back to quarterback.)

“If you can learn what’s going on around you, then you know why the play’s being called,” he said.

Jordan said that Ponchez-Mason is something of a cross between Howard and Benson.

“You know what KirVonte does well – he’s strong,” Jordan said. “Jerry’s real quick. I’d say he’s kind of a mix between those two.”

Jordan figures that Howard, who had 23 carries for 175 yards as a freshman last season, can build off that experience.

“It’s hard to explain,” Jordan said. “You wouldn’t believe how much that experience helps you, whether you play one play or you play 10,000 plays.”

Weimerskirch, who also backed up Benson, had 16 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown. Jordan called him a “tough guy” who “likes to play hard-nosed football.” Going into his fourth spring (he was an early enrollee in 2015), Jordan saw this spring as an opportunity for him to help younger players learn the footwork and other intricacies of the position.

Second in a series previewing Tech’s spring practice, which begins March 26.