5 preseason goals for Georgia Tech as camp opens

October 31, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins instructs Georgia Tech's defensive back Juanyeh Thomas (1) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Notre Dame won 31-13 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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October 31, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins instructs Georgia Tech's defensive back Juanyeh Thomas (1) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Notre Dame won 31-13 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Georgia Tech opens preseason practice Friday morning, coach Geoff Collins’ third and one that carries expectations of significant improvement in the win-loss column after last season’s 3-7 performance.

“It’s happening this year,” quarterback Jeff Sims said at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., in July. “That’s our biggest goal.”

But, before Tech gets to the Sept. 4 season opener against Northern Illinois, Collins and his staff will lead the Yellow Jackets through a month of training to prepare for the 12-game season.

There is plenty to get done. Here are five objectives to meet:

1. Assimilate and find roles for the transfers

Aside from the many transfers who took part in spring practice, the Jackets will welcome at least five more transfers who either were injured during the spring or have arrived on campus since the end of the spring semester. Cornerback Kenyatta Watson (Texas) is in the former category, and defensive end Keion White (Old Dominion), offensive tackle Kenneth Kirby (Norfolk State), wide receiver Azende Rey (Florida A&M) and kicker Brent Cimaglia (Tennessee) are in the latter.

White, who ranked tied for 10th in FBS in tackles for loss in 2019, might be the one most likely to make the biggest impact on a team in need of playmakers in the pass rush. Cimaglia, who was 46-for-62 (74.2%) on field-goal attempts at Tennessee, is another. But all will be challenged to learn their roles and quickly compete for spots on the depth chart.

Kirby, a two-time all-conference pick at FCS Norfolk State, will push Devin Cochran (another transfer, from Vanderbilt) and Jordan Williams for time at offensive tackle.

2. Develop a go-to receiver for Jeff Sims

With 2020 leading receiver Jalen Camp in training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Jackets’ receiver corps will have to find trustworthy options for quarterback Jeff Sims. With so many starters returning, the task of finding a successor for Camp could be one of the primary missions of the preseason.

Malachi Carter (20 catches in 2020) and Adonicas Sanders (17 catches) are the two most experienced returnees, and transfer slot receiver Kyric McGowan (Northwestern) looks like a strong candidate for playing time and a large role in the offense. After that, talented younger receivers such as PeJé Harris and Marquez Ezzard, among many others, will push for opportunities.

It also could be a breakout year for the tight-end group, led by Dylan Deveney and Dylan Leonard.

“I kind of felt bad last year because they didn’t get as much love, but our tight ends are definitely going to be involved in the offense this year,” Sims said.

3. Work the trouble spots

Tech can continue the work begun in the spring to address three problem areas from last season – penalties, red-zone offense and defense and turnover margin. In the preseason, particularly in the first two weeks before the focus typically turns to preparing for opponents, the Jackets can dial in on playing with more discipline.

Tech ranked 119th last season in penalty yards per game last season and also gave the ball away 25 times, second most in the ACC.

Last season, the Jackets scored touchdowns on 56.7% of red-zone trips – a rate in the mid-60′s is good – and gave up touchdowns on 60.4% of opponent red-zone possessions (mid-50′s or lower is typically in the top third of FBS).

“Sometimes, the greatest learning experiences are painful ones,” Collins said at the ACC Kickoff. “We’ve gone through that. Guys are ready to not go through it again.”

4. Find the freshmen ready to play

As always, the preseason will be an opportunity for incoming freshmen to make a quick impression and bid for immediate playing time. With so many returning starters – there are 18 players who started at least four games in 2020, plus the addition of transfers who figure to take spots, such as Cochran – it’s unlikely Collins’ team will have three freshman starters on the offense as he did last year with running back Jahmyr Gibbs, Sims and Williams (although the three can still be considered freshmen because of the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA).

At receiver, freshmen Leo Blackburn, James BlackStrain, Jamal Haynes or Malik Rutherford could move up quickly. Having enrolled early, linebacker Trenilyas Tatum is another candidate. Safety Kaleb Edwards, another early enrollee, impressed teammates with his ability this spring.

“He’s a smart, smart kid,” safety Juanyeh Thomas said at the ACC Kickoff. “I feel like he can be a huge asset for us to help us win games.”

At defensive tackle, 363-pound Zeek Biggers is by 30 pounds the heaviest player on the roster and would seem to have a shot at getting into the rotation.

5. Settle the kicking game

The placekicking, kickoff and punting jobs would be best determined over the next month. The Jackets were 3-for-8 on field-goal attempts last season for the second year in a row. Collins said that the kickers, including Jude Kelley and Gavin Stewart, had a strong offseason and spring.

“I think they made tremendous strides this offseason in their own personal development,” he said.

Collins also was encouraged by the improvement of the snapping and holding operations.

They will be joined by Cimaglia, whose experience and success at Tennessee give him an advantage in the competition.

At punter, freshman David Shanahan brings an unusual background. From Ireland, he grew up playing Gaelic football and learned to punt in Australia. He’ll compete with Austin Kent, who backed up Ray Guy Award winner Pressley Harvin and handled kickoffs last season.

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