Dontae Smith breaks down Georgia Tech offense

Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith was scrolling through Twitter on July 20 when he came upon something he didn’t expect to see – his own name. That was the day he was named to the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation’s top running back.

“I’m on Twitter and I see it, and I’m like, ‘Whoa,’” Smith said.

If you’re a returning starter at running back at a power-conference school, it’s perhaps not a big deal. There are 75 running backs on the list (although somehow former Tech All-American Jahmyr Gibbs, now at Alabama, was omitted). But for Smith, who last season was a third-string running back behind Gibbs and Jordan Mason, it was a big deal to be recognized.

“I’m extremely thankful,” Smith said. “And I’m going to go out there and chase it and try to win that award. It is a motivation.”

Smith, who ran for 378 yards last season and averaged a team-high 5.6 yards per carry, was bursting forth with optimism and confidence about the season ahead for him and his team, even as expectations for the Yellow Jackets are low in the wake of three consecutive three-win seasons. Smith poured out his belief at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte two weeks ago.

“We are going to win,” Smith said. “Now, the realistic goal is, what bowl game? We want to make a bowl game, so we’re going to have to win more games than we have been.”

After going through spring practice and OTA-style workouts this summer with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, Smith said the new scheme fits the talent on the roster perfectly. He made mention of descriptors of the scheme that have often been applied – fast-paced, aggressive and reliant on the tight end.

“With coach Long’s offense, you truly have to understand football, you have to understand why we’re doing certain things,” Smith said. “I feel like not only do you need to know but it’s good for me as a football player to know this kind of stuff. I think it’s a good transition. I think coach Long will guide us where we need to go.”

“We are going to win. Now, the realistic goal is, what bowl game? We want to make a bowl game, so we're going to have to win more games than we have been."

- Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith

Long will have a lot of work to do. Besides having to call plays that can compensate for the loss of Gibbs, Long is taking over an offense that finished tied for 92nd in FBS in total offense and was 98th in red-zone efficiency. Some of the solutions could come from Long’s scheme and his high standards. As for Long himself, Smith said Long is direct, detailed and involved with all position groups.

During the summer on-field sessions, “he’s talking to every position,” Smith said. “He’ll go to the outside, he’ll go to the tight ends, he’ll look at me, he’ll look at the quarterbacks and tell us all what we need to do specifically before we run this play, how to do it and goes in-depth, gives detail.”

Quarterback Jeff Sims, Smith said, has made progress with Long and the new quarterbacks coach, Chris Weinke.

“Just him throwing, reads, just stuff that he was maybe missing last season,” Smith said. “Maybe sometimes he didn’t make the right read or something like that. I just see a little bit of it, but when it comes to going 7-on-7, he’s putting the ball in the right places.”

As he goes into his third season as a starter, Sims also has taken on a larger role in leading the offense and the team. Over the summer, Smith said, Sims has taken command of private passing workouts down to scheduling and planning what will be worked on in the sessions.

“He’s taking the initiative to get it going and get the ball rolling,” Smith said.

Smith has welcomed transfer running backs Hassan Hall (Louisville) and Dylan McDuffie (Buffalo). Both bring credentials – Hall was an All-ACC pick as an all-purpose back in 2019, and McDuffie was a thousand-yard rusher last season at Buffalo – that help keep the running-back group as what appears to be the top position group on the team.

“Hassan, you’ve got more speed, Dylan, you’ve got more power,” Smith said. “So I’m constantly learning things from both of them.”

When the backs watch game video together, Smith said, they can share knowledge accrued at three schools under the tutelage of multiple position coaches. The vibe is similar to the healthy competition that former position coach Tashard Choice stoked among Smith, Gibbs, Mason and Jamious Griffin (all of whom except Smith departed either to turn professional or transfer), but is also a fresh start, Smith said.

“There’s not a day when you can go out there and slack off because if you do that, then the next person is right there,” Smith said. “He’s on you, ready. It’s a friendly competition, but it’s still a competition.”

Smith expressed his pride for how the two freshman running backs, Antonio Martin and Jamie Felix, have worked and adapted to having a position coach (Choice’s successor Mike Daniels) who didn’t recruit them.

“They make it easy for me to be a leader,” Smith said.

Of Daniels, Smith raved about his energy and passion for football, two traits that also defined Choice, now at Texas.

“He wants to better everyone in any aspect, any person he comes across,” Smith said. “That’s his goal, is to better every person in some kind of way. It just happens that he’s a football coach. So him as a person, that’s already instilled in him, and then you add his coaching aspect, and it just makes him the person he is. He’s a great coach and a great person, and I appreciate having him.”

While the offensive line lost three full-time starters, Smith is unsurprisingly confident in the group that will be blocking for him.

“We lost some guys,” he said. “We have one returning starter (tackle Jordan Williams), but those guys that were behind the starters, those are people that can still play. They just happened to be waiting for their turn, and now that their turn is here, I think they’ll be ready.”

Tech begins preseason practice Friday to begin preparation for the season opener Sept. 5 against Clemson at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Labor Day evening. The only focus, Smith said, is on winning.

“If it doesn’t help us win, we want no part of it,” he said. “We only want part of whatever helps us win.”