In time of upheaval, Georgia Tech commits sticking by their word

Archer Tigers receiver DJ Moore lines up against Westlake Lions defensive back Avieon Terrell in their game on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 in the Corky Kell Classic at Dacula's Barron Field. (Adam Krohn/special)

Credit: Adam Krohn / Special

Credit: Adam Krohn / Special

Archer Tigers receiver DJ Moore lines up against Westlake Lions defensive back Avieon Terrell in their game on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 in the Corky Kell Classic at Dacula's Barron Field. (Adam Krohn/special)

Since the end of the season, Georgia Tech fans have seen their team lose pieces one by one. Most notably, running backs coach Tashard Choice left for the same position at USC. Star running back Jahmyr Gibbs departed through the transfer portal, one of a handful of exits. The highest-ranked prospect to commit to Tech, four-star linebacker Jaron Willis from Lee County High, withdrew his commitment Thursday. Three assistant coaches were dismissed.

That followed a season in which the Yellow Jackets performed below expectations with a 3-9 record, creating upheaval among fans and heat on coach Geoff Collins. For most fans, the turbulence might cause frustration and possibly a re-evaluation of a commitment like season tickets. For high-school prospects who’ve committed to enrolling at Tech and entrusting their careers to Collins and his staff, the impact is much more personal.

“It’s definitely rough,” Milton High offensive lineman Brandon Best told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Obviously, you don’t want to see kind of a drastic change. You can definitely see there’s some adversity, obviously, having to move around coaches and players de-committing and whatnot.”

Best, who helped Eagles reach the Class 7A state championship game, put it another way: “College football is crazy. It changes every year.”

Still, Best, who committed to Tech in June, has remained loyal, as have the large majority of the high-school seniors who have accepted scholarship offers to be Jackets. When the early signing period begins Wednesday, 15 prospects are expected to sign with Tech, with the possibility of a signing-day announcement going the Jackets’ way. The class is ranked 38th in FBS and sixth in the ACC by the 247Sports Composite.

To Best, committing to Tech meant literally that. He said he looked beyond relationships with coaches and players.

“That changes your perspective on it,” he said. “So I guess for me, that’s why it hasn’t really affected me much. Because I love the school, I love the environment. To me, obviously, the coaches and some of the recruits I’ve been able to have relationships with so far, that’s kind of like an added bonus on top of it.”

After Willis decommitted, wide receiver Janiran Bonner of Cedar Grove High became the highest-ranked prospect in the class, a four-star player who’s ranked 23rd in Georgia. Putting to rest injury concerns with a strong senior season that culminated in the Saints’ Class 3A state title Saturday, Bonner was contacted by multiple coaches seeking to convince him to re-consider, according to Cedar Grove coach John Adams.

Bonner held firm.

“Janiran, he’s never been that kid that you can persuade or sway or get excited about things,” Adams said. “I think this kid loves football. I think he just wants to get in a program where he can make plays and he can contribute. Those things are really important and I think he understands that.”

It helped, certainly, that wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon was not among the changes.

“I think that consistency right there and that relationship has helped out everything and just maintained his commitment,” Adams said.

Kicker Aidan Birr from Kennedale (Texas) High experienced a double dose of turbulence with the staff changes. Among the coaches let go was cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich, whose responsibilities also included the kickers and who was one of Birr’s primary contacts at Tech. Birr found out about Popovich’s firing through social media. It hit Birr hard, he said, “because he’s the one that offered me and believed in me.” It was an early introduction to the business of college football.

“I really like Georgia Tech and Atlanta, so I felt good with my decision still, obviously,” Birr said. “As for when I found out, I was like, Man. I guess it happens.”

Not only did Popovich’s dismissal shake Birr, but Choice was his initial connection to Tech. Choice had even made a recent visit to Birr’s school and home. The two spoke Sunday after news had broken of his departure to USC, with Choice reaffirming his belief in Birr’s potential and an offer to reach out to him if he ever needed anything.

Birr also said that three other schools reached out to him via Twitter that wanted him to make visits to their schools.

“I was like, I’m firm with my commitment to Georgia Tech,” he said. “That kind of ended it at that.”

Birr took hope in Tech’s results this season, particularly the six losses in which the Jackets had a chance to tie the score or take the lead in the fourth quarter.

“I think we’ll win (the close games) next year, honestly,” he said.

As the losses mounted, Best fell back on conversations he had had with offensive-line coach Brent Key around the time of his commitment.

“It’s going to be a long process,” Best said. “You won’t just jump into elite bowl status instantly.”

The ties that the committed players have created with one another have also played a role in keeping the class together.

“For the most part, the same guys that have been really passionate about coming in and making an impact are the same ones that have not really been fazed by the coaching change,” Best said.

Dacula High linebacker Kyle Efford has been vocal in that regard, Best said. Others include Johns Creek High offensive lineman Tyler Gibson, Archer High wide receiver DJ Moore, quarterback Zach Pyron from Pinson Valley High in Pinson, Ala., and Best himself. All but Pyron are both from metro Atlanta and committed in the summer or earlier. Pyron committed in October and has since seen his position coach, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, lose his job.

“(Pyron) came in later, but he’s very fired up about it,” Best said.

They keep connected through a group text, among other means, a thread that has a few less members than it did a week ago. Willis is one of four prospects to withdraw commitments since Thursday. One of them, defensive tackle Alton Tarber from Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High, committed to Oklahoma on Tuesday.

Moore, the three-star receiver from Archer, also was the target of coaches from several schools who were testing to see how committed he was to Tech, Moore’s father, Derrick, said in a Twitter direct message. Moore wasn’t swayed.

“We weren’t looking to pick a school based on their record,” Derrick Moore wrote.

Further, the Moores recognized that changes happen in the sport. But they based the decision on relationships with Collins, Dixon and the rest of the staff, and their belief on what they believe is happening at Tech.

“We feel like Georgia Tech is doing a lot of the right things in order to build something legendary in the future,” Moore wrote.

At a time when belief in Collins and his staff has wavered, it’s a most concrete demonstration of trust.

2022 Georgia Tech commitment list

Name, Pos., Ht., Wt., School

Brandon Best, OL, 6-4, 293, Milton

Aldan Birr, K, 6-1, 190, Kennedale (Texas)

Janiran Bonner, WR, 6-1, 193, Cedar Grove

Greg Delaine, CB, 6-1, 170, Fort Myers (Fla.)

Kyle Efford, LB, 6-2, 225, Dacula

Jamie Felix, RB, 5-8, 189, Camden County

Tyler Gibson, OL, 6-5, 290, Johns Creek

Horace Lockett, DL, 6-5, 315, Westlake

Jaylin Marshall, S, 6-3, 190, Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Western

Antonio Martin, RB, 5-11, 205, Langston Hughes

KJ Miles, DL, 6-3, 286, Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peters Prep

Bobby Mooney, OL, 6-7, 330, Long Beach (Calif.) Wilson

DJ Moore, WR, 6-1, 190, Archer

Clayton Powell-Lee, S, 6-2, 170, Westlake

Zach Pyron, QB, 6-2, 215, Pinson (Ala.) Pinson Valley

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