Why Georgia Tech is relying so much on freshmen, sophomores

Georgia Tech's Ahmarean Brown pulls in a pass during the first half. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Georgia Tech's Ahmarean Brown pulls in a pass during the first half. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

In February 2015, Christian Campbell signed with Georgia Tech out of Ponchatoula, La. He was a quarterback then, later to become a safety, and one of a large class of Yellow Jackets signees.

A few weeks ago, Campbell said, the remaining members had the chance to take count.

“We just kind of acknowledged, ‘Hey, it’s only us guys,’” Campbell said. “It was 25 of us when we came in in 2015 (actually, 26). Now it’s seven.”

In beginning his first season at Georgia Tech with one win in five games, coach Geoff Collins does not lack for obstacles. Not least among them is the paucity of seniors noted by Campbell, which has meant a growing reliance on freshmen and sophomores, both scholarship and walk-on.

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The Jackets have but eight seniors available to play, a group whittled down over the years by transfers and other departures. Even since the beginning of the season, Tech has lost three seniors, all starters, to season-ending injuries – wide receiver Jalen Camp, center Kenny Cooper and offensive tackle Jahaziel Lee. The total of 11 seniors (including Camp, Cooper and Lee) is the third fewest in FBS.

Tech’s senior-light roster for for 2019 began forming after the 2015 season, when an unusual number of players from that year’s signing class began to transfer. No less than 10 out of the 26 signees transferred out, most in their first two years on campus. Another seven completed their eligibility in the 2018 season.

The 2016 class had similar attrition. Of the 17 freshman signees, only eight are remaining. The most dearly felt loss is that of the late Brandon Adams.

Collins has repeatedly praised the seniors for the leadership that they have provided despite being small in number, even as they’re learning the new staff’s standards at the same time as the younger players.

“But they’ve been amazing how they’ve bought into it, how it resonates with them,” Collins said.

When Tech played North Carolina on Saturday, 72 percent of the snaps on offense, defense and special teams were played by freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Among them were quarterback James Graham, cornerback Zamari Walton and defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza, all redshirt freshman starters, and freshman slot receiver Ahmarean Brown.

“We’re really proud of them,” coach Geoff Collins said Monday on his radio show. “We’ve brought a lot of really good players into the program. They’re having to play a lot of football for us.”

Ten freshmen have played at least two games this season and a number have earned significant roles. Besides Brown, tight ends Dylan Deveney and Dylan Leonard, the latter a walk-on, play regularly, as do defensive ends Chico Bennett and Sylvain Yondjouen and linebacker Demetrius Knight. Running back Jamious Griffin was the third-down back against North Carolina.

It’s at once a recognition of their potential, but also part of the reason for the difficulties that the Jackets have faced on offense and defense. In FBS, Tech is 124th in total offense and 99th in total defense. The Jackets are the lone one-win team in the ACC.

Tech’s packages on its third-down defense are an indication. Against North Carolina, the Jackets relied on, among others, defensive tackle Ja’Quon Griffin (redshirt freshman), defensive end Curtis Ryans (walk-on redshirt freshman) and Bennett and Yondjouen (freshmen). The Jackets’ difficulty in pressuring quarterback Sam Howell is a little more understandable in that light.

“You’d say right now, (the heavy use of young players) is not necessarily a good thing, but, shoot, next year, pretty much our whole defense will be back,” said linebacker David Curry, a junior. “We’re not focused on that – the future is now – but that’s just experience we’re getting. More and more experience.”

Ryans is one of a number of walk-ons who is contributing, along with defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, slot receiver Josh Blancato and Leonard. Most notably, center William Lay has taken over as the starting center in place of Cooper.

“We love (the walk-ons). We’re coaching them, and I guess it is what it is,” Collins said.