5 priorities for Georgia Tech going into preseason camp

March 17, 2022 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins instructs during the 2022 Spring Game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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March 17, 2022 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins instructs during the 2022 Spring Game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Georgia Tech opens preseason practice Friday, the start of coach Geoff Collins’ fourth season at the team’s helm. Lest anyone has missed it, the first three years have not done much to fill the trophy cases – a 9-25 record.

Yellow Jackets players are vowing a winning season and bowl trip and Collins undoubtedly is aware of the increased expectations for his stewardship of the team.

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As Tech begins preparations for its 130th season, which opens against Clemson on Sept. 5 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, here are five priorities for the Jackets this preseason.

Improve the offensive line

Statistically speaking, Tech’s offensive line did not fare well last season. By measure of Football Outsiders, its sack rate ranked 89th in FBS, for instance. And from line coach Brent Key’s group, Tech lost three starters (including tackle Devin Cochran, now in training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals) and have one full-time starter (tackle Jordan Williams) coming back. Guard Paula Vaipulu started five games, as did walk-on guard William Lay, and center Weston Franklin was on the field for 69 snaps subbing for Mikey Minihan. While Williams has established himself in the ACC, Key needs to develop effective players at the other four spots.

Help has come from the transfer portal – guards Paul Tchio (Clemson) and Pierce Quick (Alabama) arrived in time for spring practice, center R.J. Adams (Kentucky) and tackle Corey Robinson (Kansas) after. A possible starting five could include Williams and Leftwich at the tackles, Quick and Tchio at guard and Franklin at center.

“They’ve done a nice job learning the system, learning fundamentals and techniques from coach Key,” Collins said of the transfers.

Experience is a concern whether they start or are backups. Adams, Leftwich, Quick and Robinson all played three snaps or fewer last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Develop the defensive line

A name that Collins has mentioned often in recent weeks is that of defensive end Keion White. A transfer from Old Dominion before last season, White’s arrival was much-awaited after he piled up 19 tackles for loss in the 2019 season.

However, he did not play until the ninth game of the season because of injury and was not impactful – four tackles in four games. Collins has said that White is healthy and announced his expectations for him to be “a dynamic playmaker.” Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker direly needs for White to produce because, like the secondary and offensive line, there’s a lot to replace.

The leading returning tackler on the line is end Kyle Kennard, who had 15 tackles with two sacks. In the interior, T.K. Chimedza is the only returnee with significant playing time from last season. New assistant head coach for the defense David Turner, who coaches the tackles and coordinates the run defense, may count on Zeek Biggers and Makius Scott to play significant snaps. The Jackets will look for more from end Kevin Harris, who was a highly touted transfer last year from Alabama but whose impact was limited.

Get the secondary organized

The Jackets lost a combined 133 starts in experience in the secondary (primarily safeties Juanyeh Thomas and Tariq Carpenter and cornerback Tre Swilling), and the returnees have a total of 38 career starts, most of them belonging to cornerback Zamari Walton.

Five defensive backs arrived through the transfer portal, and three of them enrolled after the end of the spring semester, which means they didn’t take part in spring practice.

On top of that, the group has a new position coach in former Tech captain Travares Tillman, who is overseeing the entire secondary and coordinating the pass defense. That’s a lot of change for a group that especially relies on trust and effective communication, which were in short supply last season.

Tillman and his players have to develop cohesion and sort out roles. It would be nice, too, if the group weren’t as susceptible to big pass plays as last season’s assemblage.

Walton, a three-year starter, raved about the group’s chemistry and assured that the secondary will be better. He, cornerback Myles Sims and safeties Jaylon King and Derrik Allen figure to take leading roles.

Determine the backup quarterback

Quarterback Jeff Sims can continue to improve his accuracy and decision-making, and having a quarterbacks coach in Chris Weinke who doesn’t have coordinating duties should help. But, as a two-year returning starter, Sims’ spot in the lineup appears secure.

That said, having a backup who can challenge him and be a productive contributor if needed is a priority. Sims started all 10 games as a freshman in 2020, but missed five last season because of injury. Tech may need to call on one of Sims’ backups as it did Jordan Yates (now at Sam Houston State) a year ago.

Sims is the only returning quarterback from last season’s team, with Zach Pyron coming in as a freshman and Zach Gibson (Akron) and Taisun Phommachanh (Clemson) arriving as transfers. Both Pyron and Gibson took part in spring practice, and Phommachanh arrived over the summer.

If a backup is needed, it’s possible that Weinke and new offensive coordinator Chip Long could make the decision based on the situation. Phommachanh, for instance, is a bigger threat with his legs than Pyron and Gibson.

Form a team

Tech has brought in 17 transfers since the end of last season in addition to its 15 incoming freshmen. Particularly for a team that had the same issues last season that it had in the first two of Collins’ tenure – attention to detail and adhering to prescribed processes – that’s a significant amount of players to bring in to learn and adapt to the team culture.

It doesn’t concern running back Dontae Smith.

“Everybody (Collins) has brought in, of course, are good football players but also are good people,” Smith said. “They adjusted well, we adjusted to them well, so I think that’s why it doesn’t feel like a whole new team.”

If the weaving of newcomers into the team’s fabric continues to go that way, it conceivably could be a lift for the Jackets. Collins has had transfers who have provided leadership and contributed immediately on the field, notably tight end Tyler Davis, receiver Kyric McGowan, offensive linemen Ryan Johnson, Jared Southers and Cochran and linebacker Ayinde Eley. Not all transfers have been as fruitful, though. If the new group can provide leadership and productive play, that would go a long way to achieving the heights that the Jackets aspire to.