Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith has seen a little bit in his many days in a Yellow Jackets uniform. Going into his sixth season – he redshirted in 2018 and is using his extra COVID-19 season of eligibility – he is on his third head coach in Brent Key and his fifth position coach in Norval McKenzie.
“Working with so many different people, you learn a lot of philosophies, you see a lot of different coaching styles,” Smith said last week at the end of Tech’s first week of spring practice. “You see a lot of different coaching styles. You get taught a lot of different stuff, what people are learning from other coaches in their coaching career. I take it all in and just apply it.”
The transition not only has been at the coaching level. In part because of his extended career, but also because of the increasingly transient nature of the game, Smith has shared meeting rooms and carries with a breadth of running backs – Clinton Lynch, Jordan Mason, Jamious Griffin, Jerry Howard, Jahmyr Gibbs and Hassan Hall among them. He has seen at least eight fellow backs transfer in or out or both.
The 2023 running back group has remade itself again. Trey Cooley has arrived out of the transfer portal from Louisville. Kaleb Edwards, who switched from defensive back late last season, is in his first spring with the running backs. Evan Dickens is an early-enrollee freshman from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, (and Blessed Trinity before that). Jamie Felix and Antonio Martin return, Felix as a sophomore and Martin as a redshirt freshman. Smith is the only one of the six who played running back for the Jackets in 2021.
Smith offered insight into each, his pride as a leader obvious. He said Edwards “loves to hit,” bringing that physical style from defense, and lowered his body-fat percentage.
“For him to do this switch after how many years he’s been in college and come to offense and running back again (after playing running back in high school), because he’s done pretty well with it, I’m proud of him,” Smith said.
Smith said Felix and Martin also have shaped their bodies since last season.
“As a (meeting) room leader, they make being a leader extremely easy,” Smith said. “They do everything right, they listen, they work hard. As a leader of the room, that’s all I can ask for.”
Dickens has shown aptitude in learning the offense.
“Evan is one of the smartest freshman I’ve seen,” Smith said. “He picked it up (quickly). He knows everything in and out, does everything right, class is good. I don’t know what else to ask for.”
Smith said he and Cooley connected quickly.
“Hassan was his leader (at Louisville), so when he came in, we accepted him,” Smith said. “It was like we had known him for so long. He’s another one – he works hard, he does everything right. Also, he’s fast, so when we’re running in conditioning – also, Evan is, too – I’ve got somebody to challenge me every day.”
Smith is the leading returning rusher, having gained 420 yards on 87 carries for five touchdowns last season as he split time with Hall, who ran for 521 yards in his sole season with the Jackets. Felix is the only other running-back returnee who had carries last season (23 rushes for 80 yards). In two seasons at Louisville, Cooley ran 145 times for 709 yards and three touchdowns.
Smith has kept his attitude positive despite the turnover and four consecutive losing seasons and been patient for his turn to start. He has been a productive backup – he has averaged 5.6 yards per carry – but has started only six games.
“I want guys to be able to run, be able to catch,” new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner said last week after the team’s second practice of the spring. “I don’t want just a running back that can run the ball and struggles catching the ball out of the backfield. We want to be able to get them the ball in space, throwing it to ‘em and handing it to ‘em. The biggest thing that I’ve seen out of that group is their ability to learn. They’ve done a really good job of picking this up.”
Smith gives his approval of his fifth and final position coach (following Lamar Owens, Tashard Choice, Mike Daniels and Donald Hill-Eley). McKenzie was hired by Key from Vanderbilt. McKenzie is big on the backs using proper footwork and knowing both their assignments and the offensive line’s.
“You’ve got to know everything,” Smith said.
Smith also likes that McKenzie’s practice drills are effective. He said when the team scrimmages in practice, the backs will come back to the sideline excited, recognizing the usage of a skill developed in a drill.
“I like him a lot,” Smith said.
Given Smith’s depth of knowledge about running backs coaches, McKenzie should take that as high praise.
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