Georgia Tech takes advantage of transfer market to build 2021 class

October 31, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins instructs Georgia Tech's defensive back Juanyeh Thomas (1) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Notre Dame won 31-13 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
October 31, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins instructs Georgia Tech's defensive back Juanyeh Thomas (1) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Notre Dame won 31-13 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Geoff Collins took his shot at Kenyatta Watson and Nick Pendley the first time around and came up empty. They were two 2019 high-school signees who were among the first prospects that the Georgia Tech coach visited upon his hire in December 2018, hoping to convince them to sign with the Yellow Jackets.

Pendley, though, signed to play offensive line for Mississippi State and Watson to play cornerback at Texas. But when both decided to enter the transfer portal this season, Collins was there waiting.

Watson, from Grayson High, and Pendley, from Creekview High, were two of five players whom Tech signed out of the transfer portal to supplement the 16 high-school seniors signed Wednesday on the first day of the early signing period. Besides Watson and Pendley, two more of the transfers are from the state – defensive lineman Makius Scott, from South Carolina and Gainesville High, and defensive end Kevin Harris, from Alabama and Grayson High, Watson’s alma mater.

Besides the signing of the high schoolers, highlighted by four-star wide receiver James BlackStrain from Cocoa, Fla., the five transfers continued Collins’ reliance upon the transfer market to build the Jackets roster. The roster, including the newcomers, now includes 11 scholarship transfers. (It grew Wednesday unofficially to 12 with the announcement from former Vanderbilt offensive tackle and Greater Atlanta Christian School grad Devin Cochran that he will enroll at Tech in January as a grad transfer. Cochran was to enroll before the 2020 season before a last-minute change of plans.)

By the count of 247Sports, the five transfers (not including Cochran) in this recruiting cycle was the most of any ACC team as of Wednesday. Ten of the 12 total transfers played their high-school ball in Georgia. With the state’s continued production of FBS players and the NCAA’s expected decision to grant all athletes the freedom to transfer once without having to sit out a season, the transfer portal markets figures to continue to profit Collins in years to come.

“I think, obviously, this is such a destination spot for college teams to get recruits from, the Atlanta area and Georgia, that being here and guys going far off, whether they get homesick or it’s not the right opportunity or they just want to come back for the education piece, we feel like if we were around for some of these guys, that maybe they would have stayed home in the first place,” said Patrick Suddes, Tech’s football general manager.

ExploreA look at the new Jackets

Collins and Suddes take a more precise approach to the transfer market, homing in on positions where the team needs to add experience or depth, as opposed to having a broader shopping list for high-school signees. (Aside from offensive and defensive linemen, which always are in demand.) Suddes compared it with the NFL.

“You’ve got to build through the draft, but you’ve also got to add some key free-agent pieces,” Suddes said. “We can definitely use that to our advantage here in Atlanta.”

Besides seeking the opportunity to develop under Collins, who has sent a number of defensive backs to the NFL, Watson had some homesickness. Two members of his family testing positive for COVID-19 only increased a desire to come back.

“I think piece by piece, we’re starting to put something together that could be really good with due time,” Watson said. “In the process of college football, most kids need at least a year to get their bodies where they need to to be able to play, but I think a lot of the kids coming in already have the size. They just need the technique. I think we’ll be able to dominate soon, especially with the size that we have coming in.”

Consider the heft coming in through the portal – Pendley is 6-4, 310. Scott is 6-4, 300. Harris is 6-4, 240. They’ve all had the benefit of time in college weight programs. Pendley was listed at 280 on his high-school signing day and Harris 228. All three, plus Watson, will have four seasons of eligibility starting in 2021, so long as the NCAA transfer rule change passes in January.

A particularly intriguing addition is Keion White, a defensive end transferring from Old Dominion, which did not play this fall. In 2019, White tied for 10th in the FBS in tackles for loss, including 5.5 in games against Virginia and Virginia Tech.

“Tremendous length, speed, quick-twitch off the edge,” Collins said in a video produced by the team.

Credit: AJC Sports

Here's a look at the scores and schedule for the 2020 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

Credit: AJC Sports

As for the high-school signees, the class ranked 46th in the FBS and 11th in the ACC as of Wednesday evening, according to 247Sports Composite. It’s a considerable drop from Collins’ 2020 class, which was 27th, Tech’s highest ranking since the celebrated 2007 class. (The ranking does not incorporate transfers and won’t be final until after the February signees are added.) The class has one four-star prospect (BlackStrain) compared with four in the 2020 class, although Harris and Watson were four-star prospects coming out of high school.

“We all know as a class, we’re more of an underrated bunch,” BlackStrain said. “We’re all just ready to get in and work for everything.”

The group always will be set apart for coming together during the pandemic. Of the 16 signees, only two had committed to Tech when the NCAA declared a moratorium on in-person recruiting in March. Rather than developing relationships through campus visits, Tech’s staff – along with its competition – had to rely almost solely on digital communications.

“One of the cool things is we’ve got a young and innovative coaching staff that connects well regardless of the medium,” Collins said. “And I think that was huge for us to establish those connections in a virtual world over Zoom, over FaceTime, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

Among the bigger fish is Mount Zion High linebacker Trenilyas Tatum, a three-star prospect from Riverdale who is the highest-rated in-state player in the class (No. 31, by 247Sports Composite). Tatum committed to South Carolina in April, but changed to Tech in November following the Gamecocks’ dismissal of coach Will Muschamp and the undying persistence of Tech’s coaching staff.

“I think what coach Collins is doing is going to be epic,” Tatum said. “I can see the program turning around. I just see this whole thing turning around.”

The team’s size increased with the addition of the likes of defensive tackle Zeek Biggers of Salisbury, N.C. (6-6, 325), guard Weston Franklin of Wayne County High (6-4, 310) and offensive tackle Jakiah Leftwich from Westlake High (6-6, 310).

“It starts up front on both sides of the ball, and the work that we’ve gone through transforming this roster through recruitment and through the development of the player has been awesome,” Collins said.

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