“I think uncertain’s a good way to put it,” ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain Roddy Jones said of how he felt about the team’s prospects this season.
Athletic director Todd Stansbury expected Collins to need time to make the transition from the successful tenure of former coach Paul Johnson and his option offense; that’s why he gave him a seven-year contract, one to two years longer than the typical deal given to a new coach. For better or worse, Collins may well be validating his boss’ perspective.
Stansbury has reiterated his faith in Collins. In November, in the days leading to Tech’s season-ending 45-0 loss to Georgia, he said of Collins that “I have my man.” In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May, Stansbury expounded on his endorsement, saying that “he’s my guy because I’m seeing the building blocks of what needs to be done ultimately to get the wins that we need to get.”
On the other hand, it also could be that this is a project not going well – a perspective shared by a growing segment of the fan base – and that this season will provide the final conclusive evidence.
“It’s a tough question to answer,” Jones said of how far along Tech has come going into Collins’ fourth season. “Obviously, the results haven’t been there in the past few years, and I think they’re still a team trying to find their footing.”
The issues are easy to pick out, starting with Collins’ staff. He fired three assistant coaches at the end of last season, replacing offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude with Chip Long. He lost four more assistant coaches, including ace recruiter Tashard Choice, when they left for other jobs, along with general manager Patrick Suddes. Several players, most significantly All-American running back Jahmyr Gibbs and starting defensive ends Jordan Domineck and Jared Ivey, left as transfers.
The defense, with growing experience and what had been touted by coaches as elite talent, did not make noticeable progress in the first three seasons and arguably regressed last season, when it finished tied for 92nd in FBS in total defense. The offense largely has been unable to deliver when it has counted, on third down and in the red zone, shortcomings that led to Collins’ change at offensive coordinator.
Game-to-game consistency, which Collins tried to address last season, has been a factor. The Jackets have had their moments – last season they upset then-No. 21 North Carolina 45-22 in September, a week after nearly stunning then-No. 6 Clemson on the road – but have yet to win back-to-back games in Collins’ three seasons. Besides losing games to The Citadel and Northern Illinois, the Jackets have lost 10 games by 21 or more points in Collins’ tenure, which is tied for seventh among power-conference teams over the past three seasons, according to sports-reference.com. Of the six teams with more, five have replaced coaches in that span.
“It can’t be the up-and-down roller coaster like we had last year,” tight end Dylan Leonard said.
While Tech has had some success in recruiting the transfer portal, the promise that Collins and his staff offered with the 2020 recruiting class, which included four four-star prospects and was ranked 27th nationally (247Sports Composite), has not been fulfilled on the same scale. The 2021 class was ranked 47th and the 2022 class 54th.
And, on the bottom line, Tech has lagged with a 9-25 record (7-18 in the ACC), the lowest three-year win total for the Jackets since 1980-82, when they were 8-24-1 in coach Bill Curry’s first three seasons.
Add to that a significant talent drain off last season’s team, starting with Gibbs, along with three starting offensive linemen and eight of the top 11 tacklers, and throw in a withering schedule, and it’s no surprise that the Jackets were picked to finish sixth in the Coastal Division in the ACC’s preseason media poll and that the bookmakers have set their over/under win total at 3.5.
But, only the season will reveal the truth about the team and Collins’ leadership of it. However bleak the prospects may appear at this point, there’s reason to think that the surge that Collins and Stansbury are counting on is possible. Perhaps the most significant reasons are the changes on Collins’ staff and the return of Jeff Sims for his third season as a starter.
“Just excited about how (the new coaches) have come in, developed our guys,” Collins said. “Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do to improve, but I think we’ve got the right guys to do that.”
Besides Long, Collins also brought on former NFL assistant coach Chris Weinke, a Heisman Trophy winner, to tutor the quarterbacks, breaking from the standard practice of having the coordinator also coach the quarterback position. The thought is that Weinke can give Sims and his backups more individualized attention to the most important position on the team.
Long, who coordinated prolific offenses at Notre Dame, has been entrusted to produce an attack that can better capitalize on the opportunities that it had missed so frequently in the past three seasons.
“Tremendous background of developing offenses and offensive players, being very multiple, having a tough, physical style of football that is very complex to defenses, but with our own guys being able to execute very clean and fundamentally sound,” Collins said.
While losing Gibbs and other key pieces, Tech’s offense retains running back Dontae Smith, wide receiver Malachi Carter, offensive tackle Jordan Williams and Leonard, not to mention Sims.
On the defensive staff, a key hire was Jason Semore, who previously served as a defensive analyst for Tech and then went to Valdosta State last year to be its defensive coordinator. Semore is coaching linebackers, which has freed defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker of his position-coaching responsibilities to focus more on the overall unit and game planning. At the same time, Collins has devoted more of his energy to working with the defense to assist Thacker.
“He’s back on that defensive side like he was at Florida (as the Gators’ defensive coordinator 2015-16), and that’s what we need,” cornerback Zamari Walton said of Collins.
Tech has replenished the roster through its high school signees and the portal. Three notable transfers are running backs Hassan Hall, an All-ACC performer at Louisville, and Dylan McDuffie, who ran for 1,049 yards last season at Buffalo, and wide receiver E.J. Jenkins, a South Carolina transfer who presents Sims with a 6-foot-7, 243-pound target.
On defense, end Keion White is healthy after he was limited last year in his first season as a highly touted transfer from Old Dominion. There is a lot of experience to replace, but also a plan that better coaching can help overcome those losses.
“I think the talent’s on the team, especially at quarterback,” Jones said. “I think there’s enough talent at running back. I think there’s enough talent at receiver to be decent. And I think if you get everybody’s best on defense, then I think there’s the potential to be decent. I think overall the talent and the changes on the coaching staff, maybe different voices, kind of give me hope because sometimes that reset’s needed.”
Collins also has spoken of improved leadership and adherence to standards, although he touted that last year also. Last week, he spoke of his intention to make Tech fans, alumni and former players “very proud of the product that we put on the field when we play.”
Collins does not lack for skeptics among the constituency. It will be up to him and the staff and roster that he has put together to give reason for belief.