In Geoff Collins’ third season, Georgia Tech coordinators confident about team

Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude addresses media at Bobby Dodd Stadium after a preseason practice Aug. 24, 2021. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude addresses media at Bobby Dodd Stadium after a preseason practice Aug. 24, 2021. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

On top of eight returning starters on the defense, Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker presides over a unit that returned 19 of the 24 leading tacklers from the 2020 team. Moreover, the Yellow Jackets have had significant help from the transfer portal. That includes linebacker Ayinde Eley, who will fill the most significant hole, the one created by the graduation of leading tackler and captain David Curry. Add to that the strength and weight gains and skill development that returning players have made, not to mention the incoming freshmen.

Asked about the defense’s depth, Thacker responded, “I really am (confident). It’s a very obvious answer relative to the last three years, but much more confident in the depth.”

Thacker’s counterpart, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, exudes similar confidence. The Jackets need to find a replacement for go-to receiver Jalen Camp, but Tech has potential solutions in returning starter Malachi Carter and slot receiver Kyric McGowan, another portal delivery.

“The expectation should be that we’re better,” Patenaude said. “That’s where we are. We’re in Year 3. We’ve taken some lumps, as we all know, but it’s all a building process. If you’re not better in Year 3 than you were in Year 1, then you’re not doing the right things. I’m super optimistic about where we’re headed.”

The hopes for where Tech is headed in coach Geoff Collins’ third season are tempered by the reality of where the Jackets are coming from. Opponents outscored them by an average of 12.9 points per game last season (23.9 points per game for, 36.8 against). The margin in 2019 was minus-15.8.

If the Jackets were to improve their offensive scoring by 20% and reduce defensive scoring by the same, they still would be outscored for the season (though barely). There are reasons that the Jackets were picked to finish sixth in the ACC’s seven-team Coastal Division.

Regardless, as the Jackets conclude their third full week of the preseason, with a little more than a week to go before the season opener against Northern Illinois, heavy optimism prevails with Thacker and Patenaude.

Asked what concerns he has, Thacker was stumped.

“I don’t have an answer to that question,” he said. “And it’s not out of arrogance, it’s not out of hubris, it’s not out of avoiding your question.”

He has four returning starters in the secondary (cornerbacks Tre Swilling and Zamari Walton and safeties Tariq Carpenter and Juanyeh Thomas) with a combined 102 career starts. Other defensive backs like Myles Sims, Tobias Oliver, Wesley Walker, Derrik Allen and Jaylon King have played plenty, too. Given the ability of several of them (including Allen, Swilling and Walker) to play multiple positions, Thacker can plot with a roster that has more flexibility and depth.

Thacker believes in what figures to be a four-player rotation at linebacker with Quez Jackson, Charlie Thomas, Demetrius Knight and Eley. All except Knight have started double-digit games in their careers.

On the line, the addition of edge rusher and Alabama transfer Kevin Harris (as well as Old Dominion graduate transfer Keion White when he returns from injury), and the development of ends like Jordan Domenick (four sacks and 35 tackles in 2020), Jared Ivey and Kyle Kennard and tackles like Djimon Brooks (12 career starts), Mike Lockhart and Ja’Quon Griffin should bolster line play, which arguably is the team’s biggest uncertainty going into the season.

“I’ll just say we look different on the defensive line, body type-wise,” Thacker said. “So that helps to have those ACC-caliber players there.”

End Sylvain Yondjouen and tackle T.K. Chimedza have returned from injuries that curtailed their 2020 seasons. They infuse the group with two starter-level linemen that it didn’t have a year ago for all (Chimedza) or most (Yondjouen) of the season.

“Now he’s had a chance to go through spring ball, go through summer, and he’s starting to really have more confidence and awareness and football intelligence in the game to use with all of his size and strength,” Thacker said of Yondjouen.

Thacker, whose system relies heavily on playing a large number of players, now has the depth and flexibility he has tried to cultivate for a defense that can give different looks and be fresh. He said at the start of camp that, with the defense’s growth, “we feel like we can play a really good brand of football this year and have an opportunity to get ourselves in good position.”

Patenaude’s outlook is similarly bright. He has one of the top backs in the ACC (Jahmyr Gibbs), a dynamic quarterback (Jeff Sims) who should be improved after navigating his way through 10 starts as a freshman, an offensive line that has added a major component in grad-transfer offensive tackle Devin Cochran and a wide receiver group that has been boosted by McGowan, who has developed chemistry with Sims.

Asked about his concerns, Patenaude said it was the matter of playing an actual game and having his unit be put to the test. He acknowledged the flurry of “what if?” questions that coaches always ask.

“But I don’t think positionally there’s one thing that we’re saying, ‘Can this guy play?’” he said.

Like the defense, the depth has developed, particularly at wide receiver and tight end. The running back group remains stacked. The likely offensive-line backups include center William Lay (eight starts in 2019) and offensive tackle Kenneth Kirby (three seasons as a starter at FCS Norfolk State). Behind Sims, Jordan Yates has played minimally and grad transfer Trad Beatty started two games at Temple.

McGowan and slot-receiver backups such as Nate McCollum and Malik Rutherford have elevated the offense with a different level of speed.

“And then when you are able to move Jahmyr around, that gives you another guy that runs 4.4,” Patenaude said. “So you have a lot more speed options to kind of stretch the field and get your best athletes out there. It gives the defense a totally different dynamic.”

With the widespread expectations of progress, there is the matter that most of the rest of the Coastal can hold similar hopes. Tech’s 15 returning starters would be on the high end in most years, but this season, it’s ranks as only fifth most in the division. Sims is one of five returning starters at quarterback. No. 10 North Carolina and No. 14 Miami are only two of five Tech opponents that start the season in the Top 25, joined by No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Georgia and No. 9 Notre Dame. According to ESPN’s David Hale, Tech is the 10th team in the College Football Playoff era to play five preseason top-15 teams.

A clear and satisfying sign of progress would be six wins and a bowl game, which would be the first of the Collins era. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects 4.7 wins. Bookmakers have set Tech’s over/under win total at five games.

The aspirations would seem higher within the walls of Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“We’ve got some really good players; we’ve got some really good coaches,” Collins said. “We’ve just got to put it all together and focus every single day to be really, really good, and we’ve got a chance to be.”