Andrew Thacker finds ‘true sense of alignment’ in Georgia Tech staff

Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker merits credit for at least this much. He doesn’t mince words about the importance of the season ahead.

“There’s a level of responsibility we have to get this thing done right now,” Thacker said Wednesday after the Yellow Jackets’ fourth preseason practice. “We’re very aware of that. We’re very aware, and we’re fighting toward that end. It’s been nothing but a positive.”

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That perhaps was the most honest acknowledgment from anyone on the Tech coaching staff of what is at stake this coming season, as coach Geoff Collins leads the team into his fourth season with a 9-25 record. For Thacker, Collins’ defensive coordinator from the beginning, the level of responsibility is high, having presided over a defense that has dragged at the bottom of FBS. The “it” that Thacker referenced is the arrangement in which Collins has committed to being more involved with the coaching of the defense.

Thacker offered some light into how Collins will contribute. As in the past, Collins continues to help run drills on defense in practice. As an example, Thacker said that, at the start of practice, there is a period devoted to walk-throughs in which the defense is split into two groups, one running one of the base defenses and the other a nickel defense.

Collins leads one and Thacker the other, and then they flip halfway through. Off the practice field, “there’s just an intention for him to be involved in every defensive meeting with the staff and every defensive meeting with the players,” Thacker said. “And helping me with just any type of leadership problem.”

The defense remains Thacker’s. He runs the meetings, and he’ll call the plays, he said. But where some might bristle at the oversight, Thacker welcomes any input that Collins, who earned his reputation coaching defense, has to offer.

“Anything that he ever advises me on, there’s a true sense of humility, in my opinion,” Thacker said. “There’s a true sense of alignment. There’s no ego from my side.”

Thacker and Collins have known each other since Collins, then the defensive coordinator at Western Carolina, recruited Thacker, who played at North Forsyth High and then Gainesville High. Thacker chose Furman, but Collins kept tabs on him through Thacker’s stepfather, Bruce Miller, a renowned high-school coach in Georgia.

After Thacker graduated from Furman, Collins gave him his start in coaching, bringing him to Central Florida as a graduate assistant. Collins hired him again when he became head coach at Temple before the 2017 season, first assigning him to coach the linebackers and then promoting him to defensive coordinator in their second and final season in Philadelphia. Given his Georgia roots, he was a seeming no-brainer hire for Collins to bring to Tech.

After three subpar seasons – Tech was 89th, 109th and 117th in total defense in FBS, rankings all the more notable given that the defense wasn’t the unit that was undergoing a drastic change in scheme and personnel – it seemed a possibility that Collins would overhaul the defensive staff. It would not have been a surprise had Collins chosen to dismiss Thacker, as he did offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude. But Collins stuck with Thacker, trusting him to execute his defense.

Collins’ decision to offer more of his aid to Thacker and the defense came in part from Collins’ belief that the offense was in good hands with offensive coordinator Chip Long and that other matters, such as the culture and branding of the team, were set.

“Being here, establishing the program, establishing the big things in the culture that could have been distractions that aren’t distractions now, to where he’s in there with us,” Thacker said.

Another potentially meaningful pivot was the hire of Jason Semore to coach the linebackers, which Thacker had done in addition to coordinating the defense for the first three years. (It’s common for coordinators also to coach another position.) While Semore is a relative unknown – he served on Collins’ staff for one year at Temple and the first two seasons at Tech in an advisory or analyst role before becoming defensive coordinator at Valdosta State in 2021 – the respect that Thacker has for him is clear. They go back to one season together at Oklahoma State, when Thacker was a graduate assistant and Semore a defensive assistant.

“We are completely aligned, so I’m really excited,” Thacker said of Semore. “I believe in him as a coach, I believe in him as a man, I believe in him as a teacher.”

The idea is that taking position-coaching responsibilities off Thacker’s plate will enable him to direct his attention to leading the defense as a whole.

“So as opposed to worrying about (linebackers) Charlie Thomas and JaQuez Jackson (missing their assignments) this one play, and this technique in this individual drill in practice, I’m able to step back a bit,” Thacker said. “And that lens, that wider lens, is very, very helpful for me, and has allowed me to worry about bigger things, focus on bigger things and not worry about little things. So that’s really helped me.”

Collins made two additional staff moves that could bear fruit. He brought in veteran David Turner to coach the defensive tackles (filling a spot vacated by Marco Coleman’s hire at Michigan State) and consolidated secondary coaching duties, which previously were handled by cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich and safeties coach Nathan Burton, into one position, now held by Travares Tillman. The thinking behind that move is to ensure that the entire secondary has the same coach and is on the same page, a problem last season. (Thacker assists Tillman at some points in practice.)

In short, from an organizational perspective, Collins has put Thacker in a position to succeed in a way that he had not in the first three seasons. As Thacker acknowledged, the future of this coaching staff may depend at least in part on this collaboration producing wins on the field.

Said Thacker, “I’m very happy with the structure of the staff right now.”

The talent on the field may be a different matter, as eight of Tech’s 11 leading tacklers moved on. But Thacker hailed the leadership he has on the defense within the three position groups, coming from defensive end Keion White, linebackers Ayinde Eley and Thomas and safeties Jaylon King and Derrik Allen and cornerback Zamari Walton. Further, those six have formed their own circle, as well.

“There’s this kind of alignment of leadership, as well,” Thacker said. “It takes a lot of pressure off of the coaches. It’s been really good.”

Eley touted the “great defensive minds” who have joined forces on the staff.

“It seems so far they’ve been working real well together, putting a defensive plan together,” Eley said. “And it’s our job, whatever plan they put together, to go out there and execute it. We’re just trying to all do our part in that.”

None more so than Thacker.