Georgia Tech football trusting in power of ‘truly amazing’ connectivity

November 28, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech football players and fans celebrate their victory over the Duke during an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. Georgia Tech won 56-33 over the Duke. (Hyosub Shin /



November 28, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech football players and fans celebrate their victory over the Duke during an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. Georgia Tech won 56-33 over the Duke. (Hyosub Shin /

When Georgia Tech guard Ryan Johnson was in middle school, his offensive-line coach was a man by the name of Jimmy Gentry.

A story unto himself, Gentry is a World War II veteran, a member of the 42nd Infantry Division that helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp. Now 95, Gentry went on to teach biology and coach high-school football for decades at three schools outside of Nashville, Tenn. He coached Johnson – and his classmate who also would eventually play for the Yellow Jackets, the late Brandon Adams – at Brentwood Academy when the two were in seventh and eighth grade.

“We probably had one of the oldest coaching staffs in the country,” Johnson said. “Probably averaging like 80 years old, but we never lost a game.”

Johnson couldn’t help but be influenced by Gentry, and he was caused to recall his former coach’s wisdom this month as the Jackets prepare for the season.

“Among other things, I remember him speaking one time. He said, ‘When you’re playing for the guy next to you, you can’t lose,’” Johnson said. “‘If you’re playing for your coaches, you’re going to lose. If you’re playing for the guy next to you, you’re not going to lose because you don’t want to let them down.’”

This preseason, and even going back to the spring, players and coaches have repeatedly offered the observation that the connection between Jackets players is unusually strong. Perhaps so strong that, in a season with heightened expectations after back-to-back three-win seasons to start coach Geoff Collins’ tenure, they may be about to put coach Gentry’s wisdom to the test.

“I think that’s the moment that we’re getting to – the moment that we’ve gotten to – and to me, that is just really, really cool, on the field and off the field,” Johnson said.

Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude has seen it with the quarterbacks, noting how they push each other and critique performance but also support one another.

“This is my 30th season doing this, and I don’t know if there’s been a more fun group of kids to be around,” he said.

Graduate-transfer linebacker Ayinde Eley has become close friends with fellow linebacker Quez Jackson, but said that he felt that he had good relationships with all the members of the defense.

“When you’re playing with your friends or somebody you like to hang out with, it tends to be better,” he said.

Safety Juanyeh Thomas has noticed that players have been taking on the responsibility of holding each other accountable. It used to be Collins’ job, he said.

Now, Thomas said, “If the players see something, we are going to speak up, and coach Collins and none of our coaches are going to have to speak up and tell him, ‘You’re supposed to do this, do that.’”

Similarly, defensive end Jordan Domineck spoke of being willing to correct other ends if he spotted a mistake they made in practice and likewise of being open to being corrected by a teammate.

“Because at the end of the day, although we are competing against each other (for playing time), the goal of the game is to win,” he said.

Domineck described an environment of being pushed to compete from all sides, even in trying to be first to answer position coach Marco Coleman’s questions in meetings, but still feeling supported.

“It’s just nice to be able to be part of a brotherhood, for real,” Domineck said. “There are so many places you can go, but it’s not going to have the connection and the vibe that you would really find here in our (position meeting) room, for real, and our team.”

Kicker Brent Cimaglia, a grad transfer from Tennessee, said that his former and current teams were the same, with the only difference being that the Tech players are a lot closer to each other.

“This team that we have in the locker room right now is something special,” he said. “I’d go to war with them any day.”

Johnson said that, on this team of 100-plus members, in which players are divided by positions, offense/defense/special teams and class standing, among many differentiating circles, he has felt comfortable walking up to any team member and having a conversation. He called it “truly amazing.”

“And it’s pretty cool when you walk into the lunchroom and you see guys from different position groups sitting there (together),” Johnson said.

Johnson has observed players staying in the facility long after practice or meetings end to congregate in the lounge, watch game video or aid their physical recovery by getting in the cold tub.

“I don’t know how many people in the country do that, but I can guarantee it’s not that many,” he said.

On Aug. 20, Tech went to its team hotel before its second scrimmage to acclimate new players to the pregame routine. After the final meeting of the night, there’s a two-hour window before bed check, Collins said.

On teams he’s been with, he said, about 20% of the team might hang out in common areas, where activities such as cards and board games are set up. On Friday, Collins said about 90% of the team stayed the entire two hours.

“Somebody found a baby grand piano, and there’s about 20 guys around the baby grand piano, playing, singing,” Collins said. “It was as good a vibe as I’ve ever been around as a college football coach.”

He noted further that this happened at the end of the camp portion of the preseason, when players had been around each other for 2-1/2 weeks for most of their waking hours.

“It’s really cool, the leadership in this team, the bonds that have formed on this team, in the positions, on both sides of the ball, and then across the whole team, as well,” Collins said. “Really cool.”

As the season approaches, starting with the opener Sept. 4 against Northern Illinois, Collins’ players are bigger, stronger and faster, thanks both to recruiting and the weight room. The roster is deeper and more experienced. Collins has potential breakout stars in running back Jahmyr Gibbs and quarterback Jeff Sims. The transfer portal has supplied help in the form of offensive tackle Devin Cochran, slot receiver Kyric McGowan and defensive end Kevin Harris. Coaches are confident of progress. And, apparently, Collins has players who will play for the teammates next to them.

Decades of coaching high-school football in Tennessee taught Jimmy Gentry what that means for a team. Over the next three months, the Jackets – with input from preseason top-15 teams Clemson, North Carolina, Miami, Notre Dame and Georgia and seven more opponents – will find out for themselves.