Georgia Tech’s K.J. Wallace emerges from pack to earn starting job

K.J. Wallace arrived at Georgia Tech in the early summer as one of many defensive backs chasing after a spot in the lineup. The grad transfer from Notre Dame was one of five transfers joining 10 scholarship returnees and three incoming freshmen. It was a crowded field.

In that fray, Wallace did not set his sights on a certain role or amount of playing time.

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“For me, it’s always just kind of like, I’ll be satisfied when I’m the best version of myself, and whatever happens with that is what happens,” Wallace said Wednesday.

In the Jackets’ first two games, what has happened is that Wallace played most of the 78 defensive snaps at slot corner against Clemson and all of the 75 snaps in the Western Carolina game. He has been credited with eight tackles.

“I had no idea,” Wallace said of plans for him to see the field that much. “I just walked into it and then what happens, happens. I just made sure I was in shape, made sure I knew what I was doing. It just kind of happened.”

Wallace has been an essential element of the remake of the Tech secondary after it lost starters Tariq Carpenter, Tre Swilling and Juanyeh Thomas to graduation and Wesley Walker to the transfer portal.

“He’s a hard-nosed player, he gets in the run fit, he covers, he plays hard,” Tech linebacker Ayinde Eley said. “K.J.’s a good player for us.”

While he hadn’t played much in three seasons at Notre Dame – his contributions were largely limited to special teams – he transferred to Tech to come home (he is a graduate of the Lovett School, where he was a four-star prospect) and advance his football career. (To finish his political science degree from Notre Dame, Wallace said he had to complete 29 credits in the spring and summer.)

“I think the biggest thing is a sense of energy,” said Wallace, asked what he brought to the secondary. “Definitely communication as far as me playing the nickel. I’ve got to communicate a lot with the guys as far as getting set up in the formation and stuff like that. Just energy and communication, and I play hard. That’s kind of what I feel I bring.”

Being a skilled communicator in the secondary – recognizing offensive formations, determining adjustments for the backfield and then communicating that to teammates – has made him an asset. The inability to play as a cohesive group, as players and coaches have said frequently, was part of the downfall of the 2021 defense.

Against Western Carolina, Wallace was primarily assigned to defend slot receiver Raphael Williams, who caught a team-leading 73 passes for 959 yards last season. While Catamounts quarterbacks completed 24 passes for 271 yards, only two were to Williams, for 22 yards. (Williams did draw a debatable pass-interference penalty on Wallace.)

“Really pleased with how K.J. has played, really pleased with his demeanor, his attitude, his professionalism,” coach Geoff Collins said. “How he can make all the adjustments, all the checks, communicate with the guys that are on his side of the field.”

Collins went on to say that safety Jaylon King has filled the same role on the opposite side of the field.

“Everybody being on the same page on the back end, I attribute that to those two guys,” Collins said. “Really glad that we have K.J. and excited to see him continue to move forward.”

Wallace’s task ascends to a higher plane Saturday. No. 20 Ole Miss ranked 22nd last year in FBS in passing yards per game. Slot receiver Jaylon Robinson, likely Wallace’s assignment Saturday, is a transfer from Central Florida, where he caught six passes against Tech for 105 yards in the Knights’ 2020 win over the Jackets.

“They go fast,” Wallace said of the Rebels’ tempo. “I feel like, for us, the biggest thing is just getting our cleats in the ground and just playing. I think we’ll be fine. I’m confident, excited.”

Wallace’s communication skill is not limited to the field. At Notre Dame, Wallace hosted a podcast with former Fighting Irish teammates Kyle Hamilton, Cam Hart and Conor Ratigan called “Inside the Garage.” The most recent, in July, brought on Collins as a guest.

Aside from reviewing Collins’ career and path to Tech and his thoughts on the team, Wallace and Hamilton (who were the only hosts for this episode) extracted the following from Collins:

Reality show he would want to be on: “Survivor.”

Fictional character he would want to be best friends with: Batman.

Tech player who would be most beneficial on a stranded island: Long snapper Henry Freer (“He’s got, like, a 4.8 GPA at Georgia Tech. So he’d figure some stuff out for us.”)

Most difficult opponent to game plan for: Johnny Manziel.

The podcast is on hiatus, as Wallace is now at Tech and Hamilton, a Marist School grad, is in the NFL with the Ravens. Hart and Ratigan remain at Notre Dame.

“Honestly, I’m not sure when it’s going to come back,” Wallace said of the podcast. “But right now, football is our focus.”

For that, the podcast’s most recent guest is grateful.

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