How Georgia Tech’s special teams are shaping up

Georgia Tech safety Juanyeh Thomas (1) in action against Virginia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, November 16, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

caption arrowCaption
Georgia Tech safety Juanyeh Thomas (1) in action against Virginia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, November 16, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

With hopes of improving upon its 3-9 record in coach Geoff Collins’ first season (average margin of defeat: 22.4 points), Georgia Tech will need to summon every advantage it can secure.

To make progress against a stern schedule, the Yellow Jackets almost certainly will need to receive much more production from their special-teams units. By the metrics of the Football Outsiders’ ratings, Tech’s special teams ranked 85th in the nation and eighth in the ACC. The Jackets ranked 65th in 2018.

Collins’ plans for improving the kicking game – particularly the four coverage and return units – rest not as much in those who will be kicking, punting or returning as much as the other 10 players of the field. Last week, Collins repeated his belief that weight and strength gains made across the roster will equip players to better impose their will in the melees of kick coverage and returns.

“That’s been a big point of emphasis, making sure our size levels are increasing, so even when we get in situations where there’s loose plays in the return game, we’ve got to have our size/speed guys out there for those matchups in space,” Collins said.

Along the same lines, having tight ends (not a part of former coach Paul Johnson’s offense) and more linebackers (a position group that was thin last season) will help, too, as those are often the positions that contribute heavily to special teams.

“A lot of our defensive ends are on some of the return units, as well, because they’re 6-5, 6-6, 240, 245 (pounds), but can still move well in space,” Collins said.

That size is a product of Collins’ focus on recruiting players with speed and long bodies, and special-teams play could help reveal the benefits of that emphasis. Sophomore defensive ends Chico Bennett and Jordan Domineck are among those who fit the profile described by Collins. Domineck is 247 pounds after he was listed at 225 last year. Bennett was at 228 last year but is at 250 now.

Sophomore tight end Dylan Leonard arrived last year at 215 and now is listed at 245. Redshirt freshman linebacker Cornelius Evans has bulked up to 230 after he was listed at 205 last season.

They and others figure to be better equipped to win collisions and either create creases in the return game or collapse them in covering kicks or punts.

Last year, the return game was not much of a threat. The kickoff-return unit, which ranked 14th in FBS in 2018 with a 24.61 yards-per-return average as Juanyeh Thomas returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, fell to a tie for 59th (21.03 yards). Tobias Oliver, Dontae Smith, Ahmarean Brown and Thomas return as contenders for the job.

“Last year, I got dinged up a little bit,” Thomas said. “The confidence piece really wasn’t there as much last year, so this year, I’m ready to take on that role again like I did my freshman year.”

The Jackets ranked 110th in punt-return average (4.75 yards per return). The team’s longest return was 23 yards. The inability for either return team to break big plays and create advantageous field position certainly was a factor in the offense’s struggles to generate points, as the Jackets averaged 16.7 points per game, 124th in FBS.

On the coverage side, Tech ranked 68th in opponent kickoff-return average (20.91 yards per return) and 107th in opponent punt-return average (11.43 yards per return). The Jackets gave up six punt returns of 20 yards or more, tied for fourth most in FBS.

The punt team’s shortcomings were particularly significant, as Tech could rely on punter Pressley Harvin, who was coming off an All-ACC season in 2018. Harvin said he has worked to improve on placing his punts and consistency. The coverage unit also will need to be better at downfield tackling. (Thanks to its offensive struggles, Tech did manage to lead FBS in punts with 81. Harvin set a school record with 13 punts in the loss to Georgia.)

“So we’ve been working on, me personally, helping with that problem by getting a little bit more hang time, putting it in a place that’s harder for them to try to make a move on them,” Harvin said.

Placekicking and kickoff duties will be handed off, as Wesley Wells and Brenton King no longer are with the team. Both were unable to meet their standards in 2019, combining to make three of eight field-goal tries and recording three touchbacks out of 37 kickoffs.

The touchback rate (8.1%) and field-goal accuracy (37.5%) both ranked last in FBS.

The roster lists no fewer than six kickers, including four freshmen. One is Gavin Stewart, the younger brother of former Tech wide receiver Brad Stewart. A notable is Steven Verdisco, who enrolled early as a walk-on in January. In his media availability last week, Collins described a highly scrutinized and pressurized environment to yield a placekicker.

“We have a slew of guys that are really pounding the ball, so we’re excited about that,” said tight ends coach Chris Wiesehan, who also helps oversee special teams. “There’s really good competition. Iron sharpens iron.”

About the Author

Editors' Picks