This is the third installment in an eight-part series breaking down each position group as the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets continue their spring practice, which will culminate in the annual spring intrasquad game at 1 p.m. April 15 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The challenge of identifying the players who will replace departed starters is a process of virtually every offseason and spring practice. The work is particularly encompassing for Georgia Tech’s wide receiver group this spring.
Of the 134 receptions made by Yellow Jackets receivers, 106 of them were made by players no longer on the roster. Of the 134, 100 belonged to Nate McCollum (transferred to North Carolina) and Malachi Carter and E.J. Jenkins (both pursuing the NFL).
“Obviously, coming in, it was a position of concern, just because you had those guys leaving, but that would be anywhere that you are,” new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner said.
Faulkner spoke last week after Tech’s second practice of the spring. The Jackets are off this week for spring break and will resume Monday. He continued, offering a dose of eyebrow-raising optimism.
“Honestly, I couldn’t be more excited about a (group),” Faulkner said. “There are guys that are hungry. I think we’ve got some size, we’ve got some speed. We’ve just got to continue to develop them. They haven’t played a lot, and that’s OK.”
The position coach is new, too. Coach Brent Key hired Josh Crawford from Western Kentucky. Crawford had been with the Hilltoppers for two seasons following an 11-year career coaching high school football at five schools in Georgia.
McCollum stands as an example of the progress that a player can make from one season to the next. As a freshman, he played in six games and caught two passes. In 2021, his second season, mostly playing behind Kyric McGowan, he played all 12 games and had 13 catches.
Last season, he ascended into the starting lineup and despite playing with four different quarterbacks, hauled in 60 receptions for 655 yards. His 5.5 receptions-per-game average ranked sixth in the ACC.
Malik Rutherford, whose 23 catches last season tied for third on the team and are the most of any returning player, could become a go-to target this fall.
Quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Chris Weinke called him unique and dynamic.
“He’s been outstanding,” he said. “Love his ability. It is our job to get the ball in his hands.”
Rutherford was critical to Tech’s upset of then-No. 13 North Carolina, catching six passes for 68 yards (both career highs) and four first downs. Playing in place of an injured McCollum, Rutherford used his speed and quickness to find openings and gain yards after the catch against the Tar Heels. Faulkner and Key have spoken of the priority on getting the ball to playmakers in the open field, and Rutherford likely would be a candidate.
“Malik Rutherford’s a guy that, I don’t know if he’s probably ever gotten the credit that he deserves,” Faulkner said. “He’s quick. Excited about him.”
With his mix of size and speed, Leo Blackburn (6-foot-5, 221 pounds) may have the most promise of any receiver. After missing his first season (2021) with an ACL tear, Blackburn caught five passes for 81 yards this past season, probably the most memorable being a 37-yard touchdown pass against Duke.
“A guy that I’ve been extremely encouraged with and still battling the wrist injury is Leo Blackburn,” Faulkner said. “The guy comes to work every day with a smile on his face, and that’s exactly what you want. So he’s been great.”
Two transfers, Christian Leary (Alabama) and Abdul Janneh (Duquesne) also were on Faulkner’s radar last week after the team’s second practice of the spring. Leary, a four-star prospect coming out of high school, played in 18 games in two seasons with the Crimson Tide, making three catches for 10 yards and a touchdown. Janneh earned all-conference honors last season in the Northeast Conference of the FCS, catching 43 passes for 579 yards and nine touchdowns.
“Obviously, Christian Leary’s a guy that’s had a lot of reps,” Faulkner said. “He’s come in and done some good things. Abdul’s shown up. We’ve just continued to develop them, continued to work with them, and hopefully we continue to see strides each and every day.”
Weinke said he could see Leary stepping in to replace McCollum and said of Janneh that he “comes from a smaller program, but he’s a longer guy. As he continues to learn, I think you’ll see a lot of production out of him, as well.”
Others competing for spots in the rotation are returnees D.J. Moore, Avery Boyd, Jamal Haynes, James BlackStrain and Juju Lewis and early-enrollee freshman Zion Taylor. Chase Lane, a transfer from Texas A&M who will arrive after this semester, could be a significant addition. Lane caught 48 passes for 617 yards and two touchdowns in 27 games with the Aggies. Two more incoming freshmen are Bryce Dopson and Eric Singleton, who has run the 100-meter dash this spring in 10.35 seconds, a time that would have put him into the finals of last year’s ACC outdoor track and field championship.
As Faulkner prepares the Jackets to play his scheme, the race is on to have a group that didn’t have much of a role in last season’s offense ready by the time the season starts against Louisville on Sept. 1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I feel very good about that (group) right now, and then the additions that are coming to us,” Weinke said. “So we’re excited about it.”
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