Ayinde Eley preps for leading role in Georgia Tech defense

When Ayinde Eley arrived at Georgia Tech in January as a graduate-transfer linebacker from Maryland, Quez Jackson was a logical choice for someone who could help him learn his way at Tech and at the position.

Jackson was finishing his third season at Tech and started 10 games last year for defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker.

“Ever since I got here in January, me and Quez just kind of clicked,” Eley said. “We just clicked, started to hang out more and more, and that became my guy. That’s like my brother.”

A partnership has become a close friendship, a bond that figures only to serve the Yellow Jackets when the season begins next week.

“It’s kind of different once you can bring that off-the-field relationship onto your on-field relationship,” Jackson said.

In Eley, Tech has its successor to David Curry, who led the Jackets in tackles for the past two seasons and was named a team captain for both years. Eley shares some of the same leadership qualities as Curry – he was named a captain for the spring game in April despite having joined the team only months earlier – and Thacker has raved about his agility and “borderline NFL prototype” body.

“And then just very pleased with where he’s at mentally,” Thacker said at the start of the preseason. “The (middle) linebacker is a position that requires that, that requires that communication, that confidence, that leadership piece. And then, obviously, it turns out that he’s a very good football player.”

At 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, Eley has the lengthy body that coach Geoff Collins has made a point to recruit, a frame that likely helped him defend eight passes in his 26 games at Maryland, more than any linebacker on the Tech roster or Curry in his career. In the team’s first scrimmage of the preseason, Eley came up with an interception that he returned for a touchdown.

“Just really proud of Ace, how he’s been in this program,” Collins said.

Eley likely will pair with either Jackson or Charlie Thomas in Tech’s 4-2-5 base formation. (Demetrius Knight, back at linebacker after a spring-practice experiment at quarterback, should also see time in the rotation.) Jackson is the returning starter and was second on the team in tackles last season, with 80, four behind Curry. Thomas, a versatile defender who played linebacker, nickel back and even was an emergency defensive end last year, has made a push for the top spot. Eley sounds comfortable with both.

“Those two guys, they’re two very good players, and they’re two very different players,” Eley said. “Charlie’s more of a slippery, duck in and out of the holes (player), and he’s able to do that. Quez is more of a ‘hat and hands’ thumper-type guy. But those guys are both playmakers.”

Eley similarly is encouraged by his partnership with Thacker. In working with Thacker – who also is the linebackers position coach in addition to defensive coordinator – Eley said that he has improved his body positioning in staying square to the action and also in overcoming a habit of overrunning plays.

“He’s really detailed with your technique and your assignments and everything, and that’s good to have, to overprepare for the game,” Eley said. “I think coach Thacker is really good at letting us play. We’re football players, and he lets us play and go make plays within the lines of the defense.”

For that matter, Eley also has gotten an assist from the man he’s succeeding. To learn the defense, Eley has watched Tech game video, focusing in on Curry, who logged hundreds of snaps for Thacker in 2019 and 2020.

“He’s a guy that did it and did it successfully before I did it,” Eley said. “So I’d be crazy not to watch him. I learned a lot of stuff, and I just take little things that he did that I think can help me that I can do, and I just try to put it to my game as best I can.”

But, to return to Jackson, Eley said the two watch game video together and are frequent video-game combatants, including in Madden NFL.

“I’m up (in the rivalry),” Eley said. “If he tells you anything different, it’s false. That’s about it. We just chill. We’re in the (football) building all day together. It’s just good vibes.”

Said Jackson, “I’ve probably gotten as close to him as anybody, and he’s been a good addition, not only for myself but for this team and the defense as a whole.”

Including this season, Eley has two season of eligibility remaining if he chooses to use his extra COVID-19 year. Thomas and Jackson are in the same position. After two years under Curry’s leadership, Tech’s defense has a new on-field guide.

“We’ve got a couple more things we need to clean up, but we’re doing really good,” Eley said.