5 questions as Georgia Tech starts preseason camp

MIAMI, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 19:  Head coach Geoff Collins of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets reacts after a field goal against the Miami Hurricanes during overtime at Hard Rock Stadium on October 19, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Credit: Michael Reaves

Credit: Michael Reaves

MIAMI, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 19: Head coach Geoff Collins of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets reacts after a field goal against the Miami Hurricanes during overtime at Hard Rock Stadium on October 19, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Among other things, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins prides himself on being flexible and detail-oriented, traits that he may need to rely on more than he ever has.

Tasked with guiding the Yellow Jackets through preseason camp, which begins Wednesday, he’ll have to oversee the development of a young team that missed most of spring practice while protecting its health against a highly contagious virus that has undone professional teams with greater resources and smaller rosters.

There’s no shortage of questions that hover over the Jackets in this most unusual of preseasons. Here are five.

Can they make it through?

The viability of football in the midst of a pandemic will be tested in Tech’s preseason and elsewhere. Under Collins’ supervision, Tech appears to have made it through the summer workout program with its health intact. Protocols put in place to keep players separated and facilities clean look like they have worked.

However, the level of difficulty for keeping the coronavirus from infecting team members or staff and spreading likely will increase with full-contact practices and drills that will require players to be in close proximity to one another.

That challenge will heighten further when students are scheduled to arrive on the weekend of Aug. 15-16 ahead of the start of classes Aug. 17.

The watch will be on not only at Tech, but throughout the ACC and campuses nationwide.

How will it be different?

Tech’s operations in the summer gave indication of how preseason practice might be different. In walk-through sessions, all players wore gloves except for the quarterbacks, each of whom had his own batch of balls to throw. Balls were wiped down after every exchange. Meeting rooms were rearranged to allow for social distancing.

At practice, masks will be prevalent. Drills may be run differently to limit the number of teammates that players are in contact with. Staples such as the post-practice huddle may be put on the shelf.

As for the practices themselves, there’s likely a lot of rust to knock off and conditioning to rebuild. If the season goes forward as planned, Tech’s first game won’t be until the week of Sept. 7. The ACC schedule likely will be released at the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

Who will emerge?

With so much depth returning – no fewer than 19 players who started six or more games last season, plus players returning from injury such as wide receiver Jalen Camp, center Kenny Cooper and defensive lineman Jahaziel Lee – Tech has a chance to build into a significantly more competitive unit than Collins’ first team.

There are holes to fill, like at tight end, where Dylan Deveney and Dylan Leonard will compete to replace Tyler Davis. Collins will have to find a kicker, choosing from freshman walk-on kickers Steven Verdisco and Jude Kelley and sophomore Cliff Gandis.

Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude likely was hoping to settle on a quarterback at the end of spring, an objective scuttled by the coronavirus. James Graham, Jordan Yates and freshmen Jeff Sims and Tucker Gleason will compete.

After sitting out last season as transfers, defensive end Antonneous Clayton and wide receiver Marquez Ezzard finally have their chance to get on the field. Tobias Oliver, shifted to cornerback in the spring, can show what he can do, as well.

There’s little certainty about what lies ahead, but if the season can go forward, there’s plenty to follow.

What freshmen will stand out?

The freshmen – those who enrolled early in January and those who arrived in July – will try to make the transition to college football in a most unusual environment. But inevitably, there will be newcomers who make an impression and bid for playing time.

Last year, slot receiver Ahmarean Brown, defensive end Chico Bennett and linebacker Demetrius Knight were among the freshmen who got off to fast starts and contributed early.

This August, it might be one of the early enrollees, such as quarterbacks Gleason and Sims, or cornerback Jalen Huff. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the highly touted recruit from Dalton High, certainly seems like a strong candidate to push Jordan Mason and Jamious Griffin. Defensive linemen Jared Ivey, Emmanuel Johnson, Kyle Kennard and Akelo Stone join a group that is in need of playmakers.

Can the offensive line gel?

The position group that could see the most improvement is the offensive line, where graduate transfers Ryan Johnson (Tennessee) and Devin Cochran (Vanderbilt) figure to be effective contributors, both bringing significant playing experience. Johnson, a guard, arrived in the spring, while Cochran, an offensive tackle, is finishing his degree at Vanderbilt and can join the team after he finishes his coursework.

Offensive-line coach Brent Key could have a group consisting of perhaps Cochran and Zach Quinney at tackles, Johnson and Jack DeFoor at guards and William Lay or Cooper at center.

Having an experienced, productive line could be the foundation for a jump in efficiency for a unit that finished 127th in FBS in total offense in 2019.