Georgia Tech coordinators give updates on preseason, position battles

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Jenn Finch

In media sessions, Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker typically strives to answer questions as directly and honestly as possible, not a trait normally found in those in his trade. That’s one reason why he doesn’t particularly relish being asked to single out players who have played well, as it slights players whom he doesn’t mention but also are playing well.

“I hate that question,” he said Wednesday.

But, he entertained it on this instance, first tossing out the names of three veterans, safety Jaylon King and linebackers Charlie Thomas and Ayinde Eley. But he went further and identified two young players, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Akelo Stone and freshman safety Clayton Powell-Lee.

Stone, a little-used backup last season, had “strung together a couple of really good practices. I’m very proud of him,” Thacker said.

Thacker said that Powell-Lee, the son of former Tech receiver Gary Lee, is “ahead of the curve in his maturity.”

Answering a question later in the interview, Thacker also said that “I feel like the light has come on” for sophomore defensive end Noah Collins, a backup last season. Thacker said that coaches have considered that Collins may have the most potential of any of the players at his position.

“Just as far as fast-twitch (muscle), flexibility, just some natural pass-rushing things, just natural power,” Thacker said. “Like, ‘Hey, if this kid comes on, he’s the most talented one long-term.”

At the rush-end spot, Thacker said that Collins and Kyle Kennard have competed for the No. 1 spot and that “we would trust both of those guys in a game right now.”

Looking for answers for consistency

Thacker was asked how he intends for the defense, which overall was deficient last season (ranking 117th in total defense in FBS) but did have strong performances – particularly back-to-back games against Clemson and North Carolina – could achieve consistency.

Thacker said that after the season, coaches sought to figure out how they could teach players to respond better to both adversity and success.

“We know that circumstances, good or bad, are going to come up, so we’re trying to train those guys how to respond ahead of time,” he said.

Gathering intel

Thacker made light of the fact that Tech has two players on the roster who transferred from Clemson – the Jackets’ opponent in the season opener – in quarterback Taisun Phommachanh and guard Paul Tchio.

“They have screenshots of all the playbooks, and they send them to us every day,” he said, tongue in cheek.

The two former Tigers have provided some insight, Thacker went on to say.

“It’s just more operational things of how they feel like they’re going to use personnel and some pre-snap things, which is helpful.”

Position battles

Thacker said that cornerbacks Myles Sims and Zamari Walton have separated themselves as starters, but that there is a “really good battle” for the No. 3 job, mentioning Kenan Johnson and Kenyatta Watson as competitors along with transfers Ahmari Harvey and Eric Reed.

Thacker said that he trusts Johnson, who has dealt with injuries in previous seasons, and that he is playing at a high level. Watson has “done a great job with 50/50 balls, specifically on fades to back-shoulder (throws) that we get a lot of,” Thacker said.

Another position battle is being staged at strong safety between LaMiles Brooks and Derrik Allen. Thacker said the two have been splitting practice time with the first string. Both were backups last season.

“I think they’re not falling into the trap of comparing themselves to each other and they’re going out there trying to make each other better,” Thacker said.

Looking for a No. 1

Offensive coordinator Chip Long said that, within the wide receiver group, “I need an alpha to emerge in that group and it hasn’t.” Among likely candidates to claim the go-to receiver role are Malachi Carter, Nate McCollum and possibly transfer E.J. Jenkins.

“Probably Nate McCollum’s been the most consistent of all of them,” Long said. “But it’s going to be play by committee there and just figure it out as the game goes along. Who has the hot hand?”

Steady improvement

Quarterback Jeff Sims has been improving gradually and gaining comfort with teammates and Long’s schemes. Sims has had better and worse practice days, Long said, “but he’s been very impressive, just running the operation, being another coach out there and gluing things together for me. It’s been really nice.”

Going past first five on offensive line

Long suggested the possibility of a rotation on the offensive line. He said that he isn’t committed to the notion of sticking with five starters, as is commonly the case, because it can create complacency. Right tackle Jordan Williams and center Weston Franklin appear secure in having spots, but left tackle (Corey Robinson and Jakiah Leftwich) and the guard positions (Paula Vaipulu, Pierce Quick, Tchio and Joe Fusile) may not be determined. A guard rotation would not be a surprise.

“If we can have certain groups play 40 snaps apiece, that’s great,” Long said. “I think you just get better and better, and you build quality depth, so I’m all for it.”

Long added that the receiver and running back positions will be rotated.

Assessment of tight ends

Long said that tight end Pejé Harris, who moved from wide receiver to tight end in the spring “has done a great job for me. I expect big things out of him.”

Luke Benson and Dylan Leonard appear to have the top two spots ahead of Harris. Long said that Billy Ward has come on and has played consistently in the preseason.

“And he needed to,” Long said. “His time is now.”

Game-day assignments

Long said that, for games, he will coach from the field, as will quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke, wide receivers coach Del Alexander and offensive line coach Brent Key. Running-backs coach Mike Daniels will be stationed in the coaches box.

Daily Jackets: The AJC presents a daily look at one news item about Georgia Tech athletics to start your morning.