Extra eligibility eases health concerns for Tech’s Tariq Carpenter

Georgia Tech safety Tariq Carpenter strikes a pose in the Yellow Jackets' game against South Florida at Bobby Dodd Stadium Sept. 7, 2019.

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Georgia Tech safety Tariq Carpenter strikes a pose in the Yellow Jackets' game against South Florida at Bobby Dodd Stadium Sept. 7, 2019.

While most of his teammates spoke of their confidence and comfort in playing football this fall, Georgia Tech safety Tariq Carpenter expressed other sentiments. On his Twitter account, he questioned the wisdom of playing games through the coronavirus pandemic, asking “how is playing a contact sport safer for us.”

On Thursday, though, Carpenter revealed that he is on board to play this season for the Yellow Jackets, starting with the season opener at Florida State on Sept. 12. Opting out of the season and returning to competition in the fall of 2021 – he has a redshirt season available – was an option, but not one he’ll exercise. The change, he said, was the NCAA’s decision to grant all fall-sports athletes an extra season of eligibility, even those who compete this fall.

“They’re giving us an extra year, so pretty much this year is for free,” Carpenter said in a videoconference following practice. “That was my main question. What if we go out there, play a team and I end up catching the virus? I’m out two games because another team wouldn’t do what they were supposed to do. Now all of the questions are answered.”

The risk of an abbreviated season was particularly heightened for Carpenter, a senior and two-year starter from Ludowici and Long County High. Before the NCAA’s eligibility offer, this was setting up to be Carpenter’s last opportunity to lead the Jackets to an ACC championship and to play in front of NFL scouts. If Carpenter were to be infected with COVID-19 and have to sit out games, or if the season were canceled midway, it’s possible that it would have been the end of his Jackets career.

Now, he can play this season and, if he chooses, line up again in 2021 in a repeat of his senior season.

“I’m trying to win a championship,” Carpenter said. “That’s just my main goal. If it isn’t this year, it’s going to be next year. You can only play college football for so long. I just take that as a blessing and a big opportunity.”

Carpenter offered his critiques of playing this fall even as teammates were in interviews and on social media voicing their desire to play and expressing their confidence in the safety protocols being taken by the team. Two weeks ago, safeties coach Nathan Burton gave Carpenter praise for publicly raising questions about playing the season during the pandemic even as he, his teammates and coaches were preparing to do exactly that.

“What I love about Tariq is whatever the situation is, he wants to handle it head on,” Burton said. “He’s not going to shy away from any issue, and I applaud him for that.”

Carpenter returned to practice from injury this week. He said he was glad to be back and ready to get to work.

“I can tell you what – I’m fast as I’ve ever been,” Carpenter said. “I’m up to 240 now (he was listed at 223 pounds last season), and I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life.”

On Wednesday, coach Geoff Collins said that he was “just excited to see him in the next week or so be back to full speed and be back completely healthy, and he’s going to make a huge impact.”

Carpenter, the team’s third-leading tackler last season with 62 stops, is part of a secondary that could be the strongest position group on the team.

“Everybody’s buying in,” he said. “Everybody’s playing everything.”

From his vantage point, he has been particularly impressed with the defensive line, which last season was a young group that was often outplayed. Tech tying for 111th in FBS in sacks per game last season (1.42) was an indicator of the line’s performance.

“They’ve been going crazy all camp,” Carpenter said. “They’ve been holding double teams for the linebackers, opening up the holes for everybody, so they’ve been doing a pretty good job.”

The line’s play has been so effective, as Carpenter has seen it, that the offense hasn’t been able to throw deep often.

“(Wide receiver Ahmarean Brown) isn’t going over the top of us as usual in practice because our D-line is getting back there to the quarterback,” Carpenter said. “Us as a defensive unit, we’re getting more hands on balls and stuff because the quarterback doesn’t have all day to throw.”

In his own position group, Carpenter touted redshirt freshman safety Wesley Walker, who played in three games last season in a minor role.

“He’s been ballin’,” Carpenter said. “I’m not going to lie. He’s been doing everything. He’s teaching me some stuff.”

Among linebackers, Quez Jackson has been “going crazy.” He said of Demetrius Knight, a high-school quarterback, that “it’s just crazy how he can adjust to playing defense like that.” Senior David Curry is “doing his thing. He’s teaching everybody everything he knows.”

Carpenter will offer his own contributions. A solid open-field tackler and a force in the run game, Carpenter can bring to bear the experience of 23 games as a starter and a body that is primed for his best season with the Jackets.

Tech will have to be much better to improve on its 3-9 record from 2019, and there is the question of whether the season will actually be played in full. Whatever happens, Carpenter figures to take on all challenges directly.