Georgia Tech’s 3 key players to watch for 2020 season

Georgia Tech running back Jordan Mason (27) eludes a tackle by North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson (11) at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday, November 21, 2019.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Georgia Tech running back Jordan Mason (27) eludes a tackle by North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson (11) at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday, November 21, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

For Georgia Tech to make a dramatic improvement on last season’s 3-9 record, the list of things that have to happen and players who have to play well is considerable. Offensive line play, consistent quarterbacking and better defense against the run are among them.

But if the Jackets need three players to stand out – both because the Yellow Jackets need them, but also because of what it will say about how the team is functioning, it might be the following trio.

Running back Jordan Mason

Georgia Tech’s only All-ACC player last season, Mason was a productive combination of elusiveness and power, and he ought to be able to improve on his numbers from last year (74.9 rushing yards per game, seven rushing touchdowns).

He forced a missed tackle on 44% of his carries last season, which was highest in FBS, according to Pro Football Focus. The number highlights Mason’s ability to make tacklers miss, but also the number of carries in which it was necessary because of subpar play by the offensive line.

The offensive line looks like it will be better – the additions of grad transfer Ryan Johnson at right guard and freshman Jordan Williams at right tackle appear significant – and that figures to make Mason (as well as backups Jahmyr Gibbs and Jamious Griffin) all the more productive.

“J.P. Mason, he’s just a great feel for what we’re doing,” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “He’s downhill, he’s bigger, he’s in geat shape, he’s strong.”

The amount of playing time that Gibbs – whom Patenaude touted as one of the best freshmen in the country – and Griffin – whom Patenaude said is much faster and more explosive than last year – receive will be worth watching.

“That group is really good,” Patenaude said. “I don’t see everybody (in the country), but I’m not trading anybody’s three guys for our top three guys.”

Linebacker David Curry

Tech’s leading tackler with 97 total stops (at an average of 8.1 tackles per game, he was eighth in the ACC) is back for his sixth season on campus (he was granted an extra season of eligibility in July 2019) and could return for a seventh because of the NCAA’s decision to grant fall-sports athletes an extra season of eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Curry figures to benefit from a defensive line that should be better in coach Geoff Collins' second season. A line that can better hold the point against the run figures to be able to give Curry and fellow linebackers such as Quez Jackson and Demetrius Knight more space to get upfield and make stops at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Curry can be an indicator of a defense that needs to make more of an impact and create stops. Last season, Curry’s tackle-for-loss total made up 6% of his total tackles. Of the eight ACC linebackers who compiled more tackles than Curry, all were at 11% or better.

“Communication is critical for what we do, and his voice should be louder than anyone else on the field, setting the defense creating the energy,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “And at end of the day, he’s going to go make some plays and have a really good day on Saturday. He’s ready, he’s prepared and he has the right mindset.”

Safety Juanyeh Thomas

A junior with star potential, Thomas has had high expectations held for him from the time he was a freshman. A first-time starter last season as a sophomore, Thomas finished with 60 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups.

“You see Juanyeh’s growth from his freshman to his sophomore year, and I think he’s going to have the same growth from his sophomore year to his junior year,” safeties coach Nathan Burton said. “The sky’s the limit for that young man.”

Like Curry, Thomas should be a beneficiary of a defensive front that likely will create more pressure and thus more passes that he can contest. Likewise, with an edge-setting end in Antonneous Clayton, Thomas can clean up run plays that bounce to the outside, a strength of his. He also is hopeful to regain the form he showed in the return game as a freshman, when he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

“I feel like, being an older guy now, it’s just getting easier learning the reads, learning my fits, to where I can just react faster and play faster,” Thomas said.

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