Jack Coco’s transition to tight end a fortuitous turn for Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech long snapper/tight end Jack Coco makes his first career catch against Central Florida at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Sept. 19, 2020.

Credit: Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Credit: Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Georgia Tech long snapper/tight end Jack Coco makes his first career catch against Central Florida at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Sept. 19, 2020.

Jack Coco lined up on the right hip of right tackle Jordan Williams, bent at the hip. It was a second-and-3 for Georgia Tech in the first quarter of Saturday’s game against Central Florida.

At the snap, Coco paused, scanning for any linebacker blitzes. With none coming, the Yellow Jackets tight end flared out to the right and turned back to look for quarterback Jeff Sims, who delivered an on-target spiral into Coco’s waiting hands.

He secured the ball, tucked it away and turned upfield. He lost his balance, but recovered and lowered his shoulders into Central Florida nickel back Aaron Robinson, colliding at the UCF 46-yard line and then driving his way to the 43 for an 8-yard gain and a first down. He got up, shoveled the ball to the head linesman and headed back to the huddle.

On the surface, of the 173 plays from scrimmage in Tech’s 49-21 loss to the Knights, it rated among the less memorable plays of the afternoon. But, in the team family section of Bobby Dodd Stadium, cheers erupted for the catch by No. 34.

“When he caught that pass, the entire parent section stood up and screamed, ‘Coco!’” said Coco’s mother, Jill. “I turned around and everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’”

The reason for the enthusiasm was because last season, Coco was No. 66, not 34 – a long snapper and offensive lineman approaching 300 pounds. Out of a desire to shed some of his weight and also play a bigger role on the team, he refashioned himself into a tight end with a diet requiring uncommon discipline. The product has been a player whose emergence has been a fortuitous stroke for coach Geoff Collins and the Jackets. Without tight ends Dylan Deveney and Dylan Leonard last week against UCF and again for Saturday’s game at Syracuse, Coco has become a necessary element of the Tech attack.

“I just couldn’t be more proud of who Jack Coco is and what he’s done to earn his shot and earn his role ATL (”Above the Line") on this team," Collins said.

A year ago, Coco was a sophomore long snapper (for field goals and point-after tries) and a backup offensive lineman, but his playing duties were limited to snapping. It was a skill he had picked up at Johns Creek High and used to earn a preferred walk-on spot at Tech. After redshirting in 2017, he had nary a flawed snap through two seasons. But, in January, he was looking for a change.

“When I was playing O-line, I kind of got sick of weighing too much,” Coco said. “I was weighing, like, 285, and it just wasn’t comfortable for me.”

Coco met with Collins to ask if there was something other than offensive line that he could do (in addition to long snapping) to help the team. Collins encouraged him to try tight end. To play tight end, he needed to be closer to 240 pounds. He went on a high-protein diet, eating eggs and protein shakes in the morning and then grilled chicken and salads for lunch and dinner.

He said that from the middle of January to just after spring break (March 16-20), his weight fell from 280 to 250 pounds. He said lunch and dinner virtually were all grilled chicken and salads. What others might term a venture into culinary lunacy, he described as a good mental challenge.

“If you get past the mental barrier, you can pretty much do anything,” he said.

Diet was only part of it. Particularly after he returned to his family’s home in Johns Creek when campus closed in March, he threw himself into workouts. On top of the program that strength-and-conditioning coach Lewis Caralla provided while players were away from campus, Coco did his own. Part of his regimen was something called the Murph, named after a decorated Navy SEAL. It consists of a mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats and another mile run.

Even in losing weight, Coco actually gained strength.

“It’s absolutely crazy,” Coco said. “I mean, my bench went up, my squat went up, I’m fast. Just by completely changing my diet, my body just feels better, and I have a lot more energy to do a lot more things.”

After his weight-loss diet ended – “I’m absolutely sick” of grilled chicken, he said – he tried to keep his intake clean – oatmeal, rice, vegetables, fruits and lean meat.

“No dairy, no sugar,” Jill Coco said. “He was just so disciplined about it. That takes a tough mindset.”

He has allowed himself the occasional cheeseburger and fries.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Coco said. “Fries – if you don’t eat fries for a long time, it’s like the greatest dessert in the world. You would never think about it, but it really is.”

It was the same sort of single-mindedness that he showed in high school to play major-college football and follow his sister Claudia, who played volleyball for Tennessee. As a sophomore, it was his mother’s suggestion that he pick up long snapping, as it didn’t appear that he’d have the size to play offensive line at the FBS level. He went to long-snapping camps and added strength and mass, earning him his invitation to Tech.

“He was very talented and a hard worker and, of course, probably his greatest asset – he was a team player,” Johns Creek assistant coach Joey Matthews said.

When players returned to campus in June from quarantining, Coco’s trim, defined figure made an impression on coaches. And work he had begun in videoconference meetings with tight ends coach Chris Wiesehan during the quarantine later moved to the practice field.

“He knows as a preferred walk-on, he’s an underdog and he has to work extremely hard, and any opportunity he gets, he has to hit it,” said Coco’s father, Ed.

Coco was a better candidate than most offensive linemen to make the transition to tight end. He is a skilled athlete – he was a lacrosse midfielder in high school, he can shoot in the high 70′s in golf, he can wakesurf (surfing in the wake of a motorboat) and do a 720 and, not insignificantly, he played tight end and fullback into middle school. Plus, being a long snapper, he has been used to having the ball in his hands. The blocking part of the job came easier, naturally.

“The whole passing thing kind of just came through the repetitions,” he said. “Luckily for us, we get a lot of reps in practice, and the constant repetitions make you go over the plays constantly.”

Wiesehan had identified early into the preseason that he could help. In the season opener, when Leonard was limited because of an ankle injury, Coco saw playing time, making a key block on an 11-yard gain by running back Jamious Griffin that set up running back Jordan Mason’s 19-yard touchdown run on the next play.

Against UCF, besides his first career catch, he made an impactful lead block for running back Jahmyr Gibbs to score a 33-yard touchdown run, turning a Knights linebacker away from Gibbs’ path like a spigot handle.

Following left guard Jack DeFoor’s block, Coco said, “I made a good read, got around the edge and got the guy’s outside shoulder. And I knew from there, ‘Jah’ was going for the house, and I was just super-pumped, super-excited.”

On the catch, “He kind of stumbled and bumbled and rumbled a little bit, but that was cool,” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “I’m really proud of that guy.”

His role may be reduced when Deveney and Leonard return – likely for Tech’s game after Syracuse, against Louisville on Oct. 9 – and as freshman Billy Ward develops. But Coco’s blocking could well continue to keep him in the rotation. With his blocking ability, lighter weight – he’s now at 240 – and speed, he’s also on the kickoff return team.

In a season in which Tech fans hope for their team’s transformation in Collins' second season, they might not find a better representation than Coco.

“I can tell you this,” Coco said. “Twelve months ago, I loved football, but I love it way more now.”