Geoff Collins on changes ahead: ‘Less branding, more coaching’

After his team lost 45-0 to then-No. 1 Georgia on Nov. 27 to end the season at 3-9, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins promised a “deep dive into every single phase of our program” to figure out how to advance the Yellow Jackets after three consecutive three-win seasons.

That process included the dismissal of offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Nathan Burton and cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich. On Wednesday, as he gave a news conference to recap the signing of 13 high-school prospects, Collins gave insight into some of the changes that he’ll institute, including his larger role in coaching the defense and an earlier start to spring practice.

“As I began the deep dive into everything we need to fix to take the next steps to get the product on the field and the results on the field at the highest level possible,” Collins said, “the things that I’ve realized is, less branding, more coaching. Less worrying about culture, more worried about ball.”

It would be a significant shift for Collins, whose focus on branding and culture has been unmistakable for anyone who has followed his team in his three seasons.

“We’re to the point now where it’s time to work,” Collins said. “The brand is set, the culture is set, all of those things. Now it’s time to coach. Now it’s time to work.”

There is ample work, starting with repairing a defense that finished tied for 111th in scoring defense, 117th in total defense, 117th in third-down conversion rate and tied for 112th in plays allowed of 20 yards or more. Asked how much consideration he gave to dismissing defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker or otherwise changing the unit’s coaching structure, Collins did not directly answer the question, but indicated that he’ll take a larger role.

“I know Andrew Thacker would be the first person to say that we didn’t play to the standard that we’ve had playing defense wherever we’ve been,” Collins said. “His main focus is to do everything in his power to make sure we’re doing that.”

He went on to say that with the hires of offensive coordinator Chip Long as well as defensive backs coach Travares Tillman, who carries the additional title of defensive pass-game coordinator, he was “excited to get in that defensive (meeting) room a bunch and be back on the grass coaching at a high level and giving them as much help as possible.”

Collins has coached on defense for most of his career, including when he was Florida’s defensive coordinator from 2015-16 and led the Gators to consecutive top-10 finishes in total defense. He described his role as supporting Thacker and his staff, as he also will continue to oversee the offense, special teams and every other aspect of the program.

“Throughout the course of my career, I’ve been tabbed by others as one of the elite defensive coaches in college football,” he said. “And for me to be able to use that expertise to help ‘Thack,’ help the defensive staff, I’m going to use it to the fullest of my abilities to help.”

Collins addressed his coaching changes, calling Patenaude, Burton and Popovich close friends and great coaches, but spoke of the need for “new faces, new voices.” He described Long, who most notably was the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame from 2017-19 and came to Tech after one season in the same position at Tulane, as “really ideally suited to where we’re going.” Collins said that he was excited for the hire and that Long “has done a tremendous job already on the recruiting front.”

Collins said he replaced Burton and Popovich with one coach because he came to realize the necessity of bringing the secondary together. After Collins found that the safeties and cornerbacks weren’t playing as a unit in 2020, he had the groups meet and practice together more frequently in 2021, which did not appear to solve the problem.

“One standard, one voice, one level of communication, one preparation process,” Collins said. “I know Travares can do that.”

Collins said that he hoped to fill the two remaining vacancies, for running backs coach (replacing Tashard Choice) and another unspecified role, perhaps overseeing special teams, in the next week.

As part of the deep dive, Collins also said that he used an organizational consultant to meet with 11 players to get feedback on how the team can be improved. Collins said that no topic was too big or too small. The rest of the players will be surveyed based on the interviews with the 11 team members. In trying to enact his vision for Tech to join college football’s elite, Collins said, “sometimes you’ve got to step outside of yourselves to do that, and we’ve done it, and it will continually be an update into what we do and how we do it.”

Another change: The Jackets will start spring practice in middle or late February. Since his arrival, it began in late March 2019, early March 2020 and late March again this year. Collins’ plan is to complete spring practice before spring break, which begins at Tech on March 21.

“It’s the earliest we’ve ever gone,” Collins said. “But we want to get back on the grass, get back out there with the guys, coach ball, have the guys be coached and get to football as soon as we can.”

Collins also was asked about All-American running back Jahmyr Gibbs and his decision to go in the transfer portal. Collins could not address Gibbs specifically, as NCAA rules prohibit coaches from commenting on players still in the portal. Speaking generally, Collins said that coaches are communicating daily with many of the Tech players in the portal and wish them well.

“We’re thankful for them and everything they’ve done here as Georgia Tech students, Georgia Tech student-athletes,” Collins said. “There’s never any ill will.”

Collins promised other changes, big and small, all intended to have an effect on the team’s performance on the field.

He vowed that there won’t be any detail that needs fixing that will be too small to be fixed. Collins spoke of taking the next step “to get the product and the results up to the expectations that I have, that we all have, and I’m excited to do it. And I’m excited to get back January 9 with the fellas, and just less talk and just more work.”