5 things worth knowing from Georgia Tech’s spring game

April 23, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech running back Bruce Jordan-Swilling (29) makes a touchdown pass under pressure from behind by Georgia Tech defensive back Zamari Walton (7) during the 2021 Spring Game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, April 23, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
April 23, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech running back Bruce Jordan-Swilling (29) makes a touchdown pass under pressure from behind by Georgia Tech defensive back Zamari Walton (7) during the 2021 Spring Game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, April 23, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The work and meaning of spring practice generally is what happens in the 14 practices before the spring game and not the wrap-up scrimmage itself. It’s difficult to derive too much significance, after all, from a game in which the coach is altering the score for the sake of creating the potential for a game-winning two-minute drive, as Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins did Friday night.

Still, the goings on at Bobby Dodd Stadium offered hints of how the Yellow Jackets have progressed going into Collins’ third season.

1. Major contributor

Left tackle Devin Cochran, a grad transfer from Vanderbilt, looks like he’ll definitely help the offense next season. As seen in open practices during spring practice and again Friday, the 6-foot-7, 320-pound Cochran can engulf defensive ends as they rush the passer.

Quarterback Jeff Sims has shown what he can do when given time to throw, and Cochran figures to consistently keep him safe on his blind side. Right tackle Jordan Williams appears to have improved in pass protection as well, although he’ll certainly face better pass rushers next season than he did this spring.

If he hasn’t already, offensive-line coach Brent Key will have to figure out how to incorporate grad-transfer offensive tackle Kenneth Kirby, set to arrive after he graduates in May from Norfolk State, where he was a three-year starter and two-time All-MEAC selection.

Potentially having some experienced depth at tackle will help. Key’s younger tackles, such as Jakiah Leftwich and Nick Pendley, have potential but need time to continue developing.

2. Doing well away from spotlight

Two players who quietly performed well Friday were center Mikey Minihan and cornerback Tobias Oliver. Minihan, a critical piece of the Jackets’ offensive puzzle, accurately delivered snaps to Sims, blocked effectively and appeared to have a handle on the pre-snap movements from the defense. Notably, too, the offensive line was not called for any false starts, a major objective for the unit after pre-snap penalties were a problem last season. As with Cochran, Minihan is a player who Sims will need to perform well for his own level of play to rise this fall. Minihan at times struggled at center last season in his first year at the position.

It appeared that Tech’s quarterbacks did not throw Oliver’s way once in the scrimmage, a credit to his coverage of Jackets wide receivers.

Oliver, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will have stiff competition at cornerback in the fall from the likes of returning starters Tre Swilling and Zamari Walton as well as Myles Sims, Miles Brooks and transfer Kenyatta Watson, who did not play this spring because of an injury, but figures to be in the mix. Derrik Allen, who has been used at corner and safety, could get a look, too.

“It’s been a great spring for him,” cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich said earlier this week of Oliver. “You can tell he’s a lot more comfortable with his techniques. He’s a lot more comfortable with the defense, and I’ve been very encouraged with him, where he’s at.”

3. Unlikely captain

Before the scrimmage, captains for the offense and defense met at midfield. Three of the four were unsurprising selections – Sims and right guard Ryan Johnson (who was voted a permanent captain for the 2020 team at the end of the season) and safety Juanyeh Thomas. The fourth, though, was a bit unexpected – grad-transfer linebacker Ayinde Eley, who joined the team in January from Maryland. They were voted by their teammates earlier in the week as captains for the spring game.

In his brief time at Tech, Eley “has made a tremendous impact to our program,” Collins said. “He is a great leader, he is a great teammate. He is a great worker within our program.”

The graduation of linebacker David Curry, a two-time captain and three-year starter, left questions about how his leadership and production would be replaced. While no two leaders (or linebackers) are the same, Eley quickly has picked up that slack. In an in-game interview during the broadcast, Thomas called Eley “the voice of our defense.” Eley figures to start alongside returning starter Quez Jackson.

Eley said he was overwhelmed upon learning he’d been selected. He said that players on offense and defense, coaches and support staff have welcomed him and made him feel like he’s been on the team for three or four years.

“I’m just thankful that I was able to make an impact on my teammates that way,” Eley said. “I just want to keep doing that moving forward.”

4. Show of running back depth

With Dontae Smith out with an injury, Jordan Mason hobbled (according to ACC Network broadcasters Wes Durham and Roddy Jones) and coaches presumably not needing to give Jahmyr Gibbs more carries, backup running back Bruce Jordan-Swilling received the bulk of the running back work.

Jordan-Swilling ran 14 times for 57 times – 10 more carries than he had last season – and also caught three passes for 30 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route out of the backfield from quarterback Jordan Yates. As Jordan-Swilling tried to bring it in in the end zone, Walton made a play on the ball, but Jordan-Swilling maintained his concentration and secured the fluttering ball.

While the “thud” rules in place for tackling (no tackling to the ground, with plays whistled dead on contact) made it difficult to get a clear picture of his running ability, Jordan-Swilling ran hard and with agility, showing the form that made him a high-profile recruit coming out of Brother Martin High in New Orleans. He appeared to relish the action, dishing out contact to Tech defenders and jawing with them, including his brother Tre, after the whistle.

Jordan-Swilling’s role this fall likely is to play special teams, which he took on with enthusiasm last year in his first season at running back after playing his first three seasons at linebacker. However, his play at running back attested again to the depth that position coach Tashard Choice has developed at running back.

5. Honoring Butch Brooks

After the game, Collins paid homage to a high-school coaching great in Georgia, Butch Brooks, who died Sunday at the age of 75.

Brooks, who led Washington-Wilkes High to four state finals, also served on the staffs of former Tech coaches George O’Leary and Chan Gailey, starting in 1998. It was while serving as O’Leary’s director of high-school relations role that Brooks got to know Collins, who arrived at Tech as a graduate assistant in 1999 and then became tight ends coach in 2001.

Collins said that Brooks was a mentor and “meant so much to so many people.” Brooks became director of football operations during Gailey’s term. It was in that role that he recommended Collins to Gailey for the new role of director of player personnel in 2006.

“I would not be head coach at the Georgia Institute of Technology if it was not for Butch Brooks,” Collins said. “I love him. He means so much to me and my family, the Georgia Tech football family.”

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