Even after turnover, Georgia Tech running backs remain deep

So much has changed around Dontae Smith, the Georgia Tech running back. His position coach, Mike Daniels, is new, replacing Tashard Choice.

Jahmyr Gibbs and Jordan Mason, the two backs ahead of him on last season’s team, are toiling through preseasons at Alabama and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Another back behind Smith, Jamious Griffin, transferred to Oregon State.

“Everyone does what they feel is best for them, and I believe everything works out in the end,” Smith said of Choice’s decision to leave Tech, first for USC briefly and then Texas. “It did hurt with coach Choice going, but coach Daniels came in. He’s a good person, he’s a good coach, and he brings the energy as a coach that I haven’t seen. So having him come in after somebody that I looked up to is a good feeling. It’s not a drop-off.”

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Smith’s sentiments regarding Choice may as well hold for his departed teammates. His aspirations for his new running-back cohort – transfers Hassan Hall (Louisville) and Dylan McDuffie (Buffalo) and freshmen Jamie Felix and Antonio Martin – are high.

“I’m just really excited to see how it all plays into each other,” Smith said. “We took a loss, but I feel like we will make it happen.”

Despite the transformation, the place that the Jackets’ running backs hold within the team hasn’t been altered. They continue to be the best and deepest position group on the team. Perhaps just as much as was the case last season, they are of central importance to the Jackets’ attempt to make progress in the win column after last season’s 3-9 record.

“I think they’re all three good football players, talking about the older guys,” Daniels said. “So I’m excited. We’re going to need every one of them, and we plan on running the daggone football, and so we’re going to need them.”

Hall probably is the fastest of the three, and McDuffie runs with the most power. Smith mixes both elements. The freshmen likely will have to wait their turn. Martin, from Langston Hughes High, was the highest-rated recruit among the incoming freshmen.

“I’m excited about those two young guys,” Daniels said. “They’re a joy to be around. I think from a talent standpoint, they both have a chance.”

Just as Choice wrestled with how to balance playing time with Gibbs, Mason, Smith and Griffin, so Daniels likely will face a similar quandary. Hall was an All-ACC all-purpose back in 2019 and gained 3,843 all-purpose yards in four seasons with the Cardinals. McDuffie rushed for 1,049 yards last season at Buffalo despite starting only the final six games of the season. Smith shined in his reserve role last season, averaging a team-high 5.6 yards per carry on 68 rushing attempts.

“Dylan and Hassan, they are extremely hard workers, and they are both running backs who have had experience,” Smith said. “It’s kind of like the similar situation I’ve been in, but it’s also a fresh start, and fresh competition. I feel like that’ll be beneficial to me.”

On Wednesday, Daniels touted all three backs as starters and said that, while he had a framework for how he wanted to divide playing time, he had not yet decided on a pecking order. He said that playing time would be decided by which of the three was hot and how each fit into the offense’s plans. It is not his first time down this road. At Buffalo last season, Daniels divvied up snaps and carries among three backs, including McDuffie. As Daniels noted, two of them earned All-MAC honors (one of them as a return specialist) and the third signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as an undrafted free agent.

“We just went with the hot hand, really,” McDuffie said of last season at Buffalo. “Whoever was playing well, that’s who kept the ball in their hands.”

Daniels expects to have enough carries to feed his trio. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has said he aims for a 60/40 run/pass ratio, a balance that caused McDuffie’s face to light up when he was reminded of this Wednesday.

“We know that to be successful, all three of us need to be successful, and we push each other to be better,” McDuffie said. “So that’s really the ultimate goal, our everything for us. We’ve just got to keep doing that.”

Any scenario in which the Jackets surpass expectations and post a winning record (or even a .500 record) would seem to include this group contributing heavily. With an inexperienced offensive line and a receiving group that is retooling, Long’s safest best might be to stick to the run game and his trio of backs as much as possible.

They don’t have any issues with that.

Said Daniels, “If you’re running the football and you’re having success and you’re playing bowl games and you’re playing conference championship games, you’re going to need three guys.”