Seeking change, grad transfer Ayinde Eley happy at Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech linebacker Ayinde Eley at the first day of spring practice on March 30, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech linebacker Ayinde Eley at the first day of spring practice on March 30, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

The phone calls between Ayinde Eley and his father Donald Hill-Eley are different now. Hill-Eley hears excitement in his son’s voice when they talk, particularly when the talk turns to football, as it often might. Eley is a linebacker at Georgia Tech, a grad transfer from Maryland, and his father is head coach at Alabama State.

“It’s just a totally different conversation when I talk to him now,” Hill-Eley told the AJC Monday. “He’s really enjoying the game of football, and that helps you reach your potential.”

Hill-Eley is optimistic for his son’s playing time at Tech, aspirations shared by Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, among others. But more than that, Hill-Eley is glad for the happiness that he hears coming through his phone. As early as Maryland’s first game last season, which was his son’s fourth year at the school, Hill-Eley said that he knew that his son would be transferring.

“I’ve got some guys here that don’t play, or their (playing) time has been cut,” Hill-Eley said of players on his own team. “But the key is having some kind of communication with the guys that they don’t feel ostracized. That’s the feeling that we got when we were up the road (at Maryland). I just wanted him to get around some guys that, it’s not so much whether he plays or not – I think he’s good enough to play – but that it doesn’t feel personal.”

At Maryland, Eley started nine of the Terrapins’ 12 games in 2019, and he finished second in tackles with 79. In 2020, however, he played in three of the Terrapins’ five games with one start. He announced his decision to go into the portal on Dec. 25 and then went public with his transfer to Tech on the 28th.

Speaking Saturday, Eley said that he wanted a change after graduating from Maryland in December with a degree in family science. At the same time, Tech was in search of linebacking help, with David Curry having graduated after leading the team in tackles the past two seasons.

“It just matched up,” Eley said. “I was closer to my dad in Alabama, and the situation with what they were looking for in a linebacker and what I was looking for in a home, it all matched up together, and we were able to get everything done. I’m happy I made that decision.”

Thacker has experienced his own delight, what with taking receipt of a linebacker with starting experience in the Big Ten who has what he called a “borderline NFL prototype of what a linebacker should look like.” Listed at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and blessed with, in Thacker’s words “excellent movement traits,” Eley can help the Tech defense by covering more territory when out in open space. That ability, on display Saturday during the Jackets’ open practice Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, figures to help a defense that needs to be both faster and bigger after finishing 14th in the ACC in total defense.

It won’t be a surprise if Eley (whose name is pronounced Uh-yin-day Eel-E) starts at linebacker alongside Quez Jackson in Thacker’s 4-2-5 defense.

“Very excited about his talent and what he’s done for the group,” Thacker said. “I see him having a very heavy role for us going into the fall.”

Thacker has particularly been struck by Eley’s maturity in engaging with his new teammates and his commitment to getting up to speed.

“He has learned the defense at a faster rate than arguably anybody I’ve ever seen coming in,” Thacker said. “It’s a testament to him. Individual meetings with him go well, but what he does on his own to learn – he is as mature of a player as I’ve ever had come in.”

From Eley’s perspective, it’s a matter of following the example of linebackers like Jackson and Charlie Thomas.

“They told me the standard from the jump that I got here, the standard and what’s expected,” Eley said. “And I understood that and I’ve just been trying my best every day to meet that standard while I’m here.”

In the winter workout program, Eley lost body fat, added weight and put on four inches to his vertical jump, according to a tweet from the strength and conditioning staff. Eley’s father hears his son’s eagerness to continue the pursuit of the standards when they talk.

“Can’t wait to get up the next day to go to work, doesn’t want to leave the facility,” Hill-Eley said. “I call him sometimes at 7, 8, 9 at night still watching film. That never happened at the other place. That environment is definitely going to get not just the most out of Ayinde, but probably a lot of those players.”

Eley has two years of eligibility remaining. He is planning to earn a second bachelor’s degree, in history, technology and society. Jackson attested to the “older swag” that Eley has brought to a young linebacker group.

“He’s just vibed with everybody in the room,” Jackson said. “Everybody clicks with him, everybody vibes off of him. We feed off his energy.”

Since arriving in Atlanta, Eley has been able to watch his father’s team play a couple games (Alabama State, an FCS school, is playing a spring season). Eley, who attended Good Counsel High in Olney, Md., hadn’t done that since his father was head coach at Morgan State in Baltimore, a position he held 2002-13. (Hill-Eley was hired at Alabama State as an associate head coach in 2015, took over as interim in the middle of the 2017 season and has been head coach since the end of that season.) Hill-Eley has also made the trip from Montgomery, Ala., to Atlanta to take him to dinner.

“So it’s been a blessing for us just as a family,” Hill-Eley said. “I can’t even put into words what that means to be able to have him this close and to have him happy with what’s going on. You want kids to have a great college experience, and I feel that he’ll get that there.”

Georgia Tech linebacker Ayinde Eley with his father Donald Hill-Eley and brother Jacob at Eley's apartment in Atlanta. Hill-Eley is the head football coach at Alabama State. (Photo courtesy Donald Hill-Eley)
Georgia Tech linebacker Ayinde Eley with his father Donald Hill-Eley and brother Jacob at Eley's apartment in Atlanta. Hill-Eley is the head football coach at Alabama State. (Photo courtesy Donald Hill-Eley)

In Other News