For better or worse, Tech’s 10 open scholarships are anomalous in the ACC. Six of the conference’s 14 teams are at the 85-player limit or even over, counting on players to leave the team by transfer or other means. Another three are near the limit at either 83 or 84. The remaining four are between 78 and 82.
What that means for Tech can be interpreted in different ways. One could see it as an opportunity to add talent when competitors don’t have nearly the scholarship space to take on more players even if they wanted to do so. Another is that the Jackets are thin depth-wise and are trying to build their roster at a point when most of the better players have entered the portal and committed.
Collins particularly needs more bodies on the offensive line with a strong preference for experience. Offensive line coach Brent Key’s group has 12 players on scholarship compared with 16 a year ago and 14 in 2020. Further, it’s not an especially experienced group. Only four on the line, including walk-on William Lay, have starting experience – two-year starter Jordan Williams (18 starts), Paula Vaipulu (five), Lay (14) and Paul Tchio (one start at Clemson). Further, of the 12 scholarship linemen, three are incoming freshmen and another three are redshirt freshmen who played either one or no games last season.
Running back, where Tech will have four scholarship players with the summer arrival of freshman Jamie Felix, is another spot where the Jackets could use more depth, although walk-ons Daylon Gordon and Englan Williams have caught coaches’ attention. Quarterback, with three scholarship players, is another.
Collins has eight defensive tackles – a healthy number – but is short on experience, which is why last week’s addition of Joseph (19 career starts at Memphis, 35 games played) was valuable. Of the eight tackles, two are incoming freshmen and three have played 11 career games or fewer. Defensive end Keion White could see time on the interior.
With seven scholarship linebackers – Tech carried eight last year – Collins could stand to get deeper at that position. Experienced depth is again not a strength.
As the Jackets’ staff members sift through the next batch of portal entries, though, they may find that experience to be at a premium. It’s likely that the quality of talent coming on the transfer market won’t match the supply available in the portal following the end of the 2021 season. At that point, many (though not all) players were transferring despite having played starting roles for their original teams. Tech had its share, most notably running back Jahmyr Gibbs. At this point, however, it would stand to reason that players are more likely transferring because spring practice has clarified their standing on their teams is lower than they hoped.
An analysis of the portal done for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by SportSource Analytics of last year’s transfer candidates indicated a considerable gap between the two groups. SportSource is a sports data company whose clients include the College Football Playoff, all five power conferences and dozens of FBS and FCS teams. Former Tech baseball player Scott Prather is a co-founder.
SportSource culled portal entries into two groups from last offseason, those who transferred in December 2020 through January 2021 and those who transferred from March 2021 to May 2021. Those groups were limited to FBS and FCS players who transferred and ultimately were able to land with a new team.
The first pool had 722 players, the second 653. In the first, 45% had played in at least 24 games, or the equivalent of two full regular seasons. In the second, it was 14%. Similarly, 29% of the first December/January portal entries had started at least 12 games, while the same was true for 10% of the March/April/May cohort. Slicing the data another way – players who had recorded at least 1,000 career snaps – 24% in the first group, 6% in the second.
In short, the number of players who might be expected to come in and have the experience to contribute immediately – such as past transfers including linebacker Ayinde Eley (still on the roster), offensive linemen Devin Cochran and Ryan Johnson and wide receiver Kyric McGowan – will be in shorter supply.
Further, the playing experience of transfers in this year’s December/January cycle were similar to last year’s, suggesting the trend will hold to form for the spring entries into the portal.
“Probably it’s going to be the guys that after spring practice realized they’re not going to start or going to play wherever they are,” Prather said. “I think it’ll probably be lesser experienced, lesser caliber of players who will enter the portal between now and May.”
For a team that is trying to make a big jump from three consecutive three-win seasons and has lost 16 players who started at least six games last season and eight of its top 11 tacklers, experience is prized. The Jackets already picked it up in the form of tight end Luke Benson (Syracuse), quarterback Zach Gibson (Akron) and running back Hassan Hall (Louisville). But the Jackets could use a lot more.
It’s plausible that Tech could have some benefit with so many open spots, something akin to an NFL team with much more salary-cap space than its rivals. However, at the same time Collins will try to convince portal prospects to join a team whose prospects for success aren’t great. And even if competitors don’t have several open spots, the Jackets undoubtedly will have competition for the top available prospects as teams try to complete their own rosters.
As ever, the cycle of recruiting never slows down completely, and in coming weeks could be particularly busy – and important – for Tech.