Now the head coach, what’s next for Georgia Tech’s Brent Key

Georgia Tech coach Brent Key (Daniel Varnado / for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Georgia Tech coach Brent Key (Daniel Varnado / for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

When Brent Key began his first full day as Georgia Tech’s full-time head coach, he had some disadvantages that most of his predecessors did not have. He has never been a full-time head coach, first of all.

But he also arrived to work Wednesday with advantages that few of them had. He has been the Yellow Jackets’ head coach, though as an interim, for the past two months. He has overseen the offense, defense and special teams and gotten to know intimately those units, their players and the coaches leading them.

While other candidates would have brought their own qualities to the job, none of them could have had that knowledge.

“He’s not going to have to come here and learn about the program and spend a lot of time talking to people about the program and what it could be,” Gregg Garrett, a major donor to the program, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He can hit the ground running to make the plan a reality.”

Key’s plan for Tech is another differentiator that Garrett has observed. Going back to the tenure of Bobby Ross (1987-91), Garrett said, “I’ve never encountered a coach that has come in with such a well thought out and detailed plan about what this program is about and how to get this program to the next level.”

It didn’t take long to figure out that, once Key was made the interim after the firing of Geoff Collins four games into the season, he had a plan for how he wanted to run the team. Whether it was peripheral matters such as the discontinuation of the “Money Down” signs or more significant ones, such as the change in how the team practiced, Key quickly implemented his own way of doing things, even if it were to last for only eight games. But now he has a much longer runway.

It includes plans, Garrett said, regarding “how he wants the program to be run on a day-to-day basis, what the recruiting process looks like in order to maximize our potential here. And he’s thought about every aspect of the program and the type of people he needs to help him reach those goals.”

Key’s plans were shaped by his time on the staffs of former Tech coach George O’Leary and Alabama’s Nick Saban. And while borrowed blueprints won’t produce a winning team alone, those plans being put into action by an effective leader certainly will aid the cause.

“Brent’s a really good football coach who’s been in a lot of places, been very successful at all those places,” Garrett said. “I think that’s what maybe people miss, is he’s a football coach who went to Tech and not a Tech grad who happens to be a football coach.”

As the first days in office unfold, a most critical action he’ll have to take is the formation of his coaching staff. There’s one addition for sure that he has to make, the hiring of an offensive line coach. Key relied on graduate assistant Nathan Brock to oversee the line once he was promoted to interim head coach, and it would seem a strong likelihood that he’ll go with a more experienced coach for that job.

As leaders of their respective units, coordinators Chip Long (offense) and Andrew Thacker (defense) may be under the most scrutiny.

Key spoke well of Thacker’s leadership of the defense over the course of his interim tenure, which in the eight games after Collins’ firing allowed 5.7 yards per play after giving up 6.6 yards per play in 2021. The Jackets did so while facing three teams ranked in the top 15 in FBS in total offense over the final eight games of the season. Scoring defense dropped from 33.5 points per game in 2021 to 26.8 in the final eight games. Football Outsiders ranks the defense 39th in its Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) rating after it was 112th last season, a stunning jump.

Long, who was brought in to replace Dave Patenaude at twice the salary, faced considerable challenges, namely not having All-American running back Jahmyr Gibbs and losing his first- and second-string quarterbacks during the second half of the season.

Managing the last two games with Zach Gibson and Taisun Phommachanh and helping defeat then-No. 13 North Carolina with that tandem is a credit to his game-planning. Overall, the Jackets averaged 4.8 yards per play and 18.9 points per game over the last eight games of their season after putting up 5.6 yards per play and 23.8 points per game in 2021 with Patenaude at the helm of the offense. Its FEI ranking dropped from 78th to 108th. Tech faced three defenses in the top 20 in FBS in total defense in the final eight games.

Key has a different dynamic than most new coaches in that he has worked alongside every coach for at least one season and two (Thacker and defensive line coach Larry Knight) for four seasons. Long is a friend whom he helped bring to Tech from Tulane last offseason. Likewise, he may have plans to make changes with non-coaching staff.

While it may make dismissing coaches and staff much more difficult, it is also an advantage, as he has been able to observe the staff and has firsthand knowledge of how they fit at Tech, how well they work with him as head coach and how they could fit into his vision.

The completion of the 2023 high-school signing class also demands his attention. As of Wednesday, Tech had 16 players committed for the 2023 signing class. With the early signing period starting Dec. 21, Key figures to ramp up recruiting efforts and add more prospects to the class. For one thing, Tech does not have a commitment from a quarterback or a running back.

Key, director of scouting and pro liaison Kenyatta Watson and their staffs remained busy during the season even as uncertainty loomed over the team. Even after Key was made the interim and there was no certainty about the team’s leadership, Tech secured four commitments for the 2023 class.

Coaches can go back on the road to make high school and home visits starting Friday, and the message that they can now communicate to recruits about the future of the program is far different than it was over the past two months. Moreover, the team’s strong finish and the start of a new coaching tenure likely will resonate with prospects, and the Tech staff undoubtedly will try to take advantage of that momentum.

Besides adding to the class, it wouldn’t be a surprise if a few prospects withdraw commitments, particularly if staff changes precede signing day, as prospects who were recruited by a particular coach may withdraw their commitments if that coach is not retained.

Another immediate job for Key will be to manage the transfer portal. Since the end of the season, four Tech players announced their decisions to enter the transfer portal when it opens Monday – quarterback Jeff Sims, wide receivers Nate McCollum and Ryan King and kicker Jude Kelley. All made their decisions before Key was made head coach.

It’s not a given that players in the portal are committed to leaving, though Sims’ departure, given his being separated from the team for the final two games of the season, is a near certainty. McCollum, for instance, tweeted his support for Key’s candidacy before his announcement and might be convinced to return. Undoubtedly, Key will do everything in his power to pull him out of the portal.

It would be a surprise if there weren’t more players to depart, seeking playing time, a school closer to home or for another reason. But, obviously, the Jackets figure also to be recruiting out of the portal, as well. Key and his staff can tout the successes of transfers such as linebacker Ayinde Eley, running back Hassan Hall, defensive end Keion White – all of whom earned All-ACC recognition this season – and others. Wide receiver and linebacker are two positions where Tech could stand to add depth.

Tech has approximately 69 players on scholarship with eligibility remaining (not counting the three who were in the portal as of Wednesday) and have 16 players committed, which adds up to the 85-scholarship limit. The numbers figure to be fluid in the coming weeks as Key’s first team as full-time head coach takes shape.

There are other decisions that will need his attention in time, such as the offseason training program, the overall vision and plan for recruiting beyond simply closing out the 2023 class and, once a new coaching staff is set, how responsibilities will be delineated and how the team will play schematically. The plan for the transfer portal and how to help players earn money off their name, image and likeness are two more.

Most likely, Key has a plan for all of it already.