Georgia Tech running backs ‘fighting for reps’ at stocked position

Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith at the Yellow Jackets' initial morning of spring practice on March 30, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith at the Yellow Jackets' initial morning of spring practice on March 30, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

Every day, Georgia Tech players hop on a scale to measure their weight. And when running back Dontae Smith gets his weight, he seeks out fellow back Jahmyr Gibbs.

“I come ask him what he weighs, and then he’ll tell me, and then I’ll him what I weigh,” Smith said. “Since he’s closer to my size (than other running backs), I try to compete with him.”

Following Tuesday’s spring-practice workout, Smith reported he was at 202 pounds when he weighed himself Monday, up from his playing weight last season of about 182. Gibbs said he was 203 pounds, up from about 192 during the season.

“I’m stronger,” Gibbs said. “I’m pretty sure I got faster.”

Presumably, the race to add muscle mass will stop at some point before offensive tackle Jordan Williams is invited into the Gibbs/Smith weigh-in challenge, but it’s nonetheless an illustration of the sort of competition that fuels the running backs overseen by position coach Tashard Choice. Gibbs calls it a “friendly competitive vibe,” but it’s competition all the same.

“That’s honestly what it is,” Smith said. “I mean, we love each other and everything, but at the end of the day, we’re all fighting for reps.”

Tech has no position more stocked than running back. As a freshman, Gibbs ranked fourth in the ACC in all-purpose yards per game (138.3). Mason, an All-ACC pick in 2019, has run for 90-plus yards nine times in his career. Of players with double-digit carries, Smith led the team with a 6.9 yards-per-carry average, boosted by six runs of 20 yards or more out of 43 carries. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Griffin was the No. 2 running-back prospect in Georgia in the 2019 class (247Sports Composite) and has run for 354 yards in two seasons, hardly a shabby total.

With a finite number of snaps and carries available, the competition is fierce, with Choice officiating and motivating.

“As far as how I’m concerned about the position, I make sure I let them know every single year, I’m trying to go get somebody to replace you, trying to get somebody who’s better than you I see in high school,” Choice said.

“And the opportunity to play this game of football is very minimal. So they understand that when you’re on a football field, you have to make the most of your chances. That’s how you get on the football field, that’s how you stay on the football field.”

In search of more carries this fall, Smith was determined to improve his body in the winter strength program. He added muscle, increasing his number of bench-press reps of 225 pounds from 14 to 20. At the same time, he improved his vertical jump from 33.5 inches to 37. With more power in his base, Smith said he runs with a lower center of gravity.

“It’s a difference,” Smith said. “I feel way more explosive, like, breaking through tackles. It feels way better to be bigger now.”

Come next season, it will make it all the more difficult for Choice not to give Smith snaps. Choice extolled Smith’s strength gains, attention to detail and his desire to improve and expressed his respect for Smith’s commitment.

“When you’ve got somebody working their tail off to do the right thing on and off the football field, and then he puts it all together and then he gets an opportunity to play, and then he make the most of his reps – shoot, he’s got to play,” Choice said. “I’ve got to make time for him. I’ve got to get him in the game.”

Choice knows something about competition. As a running back at Tech, he shared snaps with P.J. Daniels in 2005 before Daniels was drafted in the fourth round by the Baltimore Ravens in 2006. In 2007, he was joined by Jonathan Dwyer, later to be the ACC player of the year and a sixth-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010.

Himself a fourth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, Choice played six NFL seasons, witnessing and putting forth the maniacal effort necessary to stay in the league. Particularly last summer when players were at home, Choice connected with NFL backs he knew to have them talk to his players via videoconference to reinforce his message about the importance of an unrelenting work ethic.

In the NFL, Choice said, “where you’ve got guys that play and practice their tails off, you understood how important it is to make sure that every time you step on the football field, either special teams or at the running back position, you maximize your reps.”

Choice sees his players act on that competitive drive in how they ask good questions in position meetings or when they put in extra work when no one’s watching. Are they leading the group when the team is doing conditioning runs? Are they being recognized for their work in the weight room?

And when one nudges forward, it compels the rest to keep up.

“These young guys, they push me every single day,” Mason said.

It is indicative of the work that the backs put in during the winter that Gibbs, Smith and Griffin were three of the 10 players upon whom Collins bestowed single-digit jerseys, rewards for their efforts at being great teammates and leaders. (Many single-digit jerseys are shared by two players.)

“We made it a point of, OK, we know how coach Collins does single digits, so we’ve got to turn it up, we’ve got to work hard,” Smith said.

Certainly, all of the four would love to be receiving the bulk of the carries. That was Mason’s status in 2019. But for Tech to achieve the heights that Collins seeks, this sort of playing-time competition will be necessary across all positions, not only at running back.

“Just how you look at it is, you step in when it’s your turn, when your number’s called,” Mason said. “So if that’s sharing reps, that’s what I’ve got to do.”

The competition at the position goes beyond the top four. Bruce Jordan-Swilling, Tony Amerson and Devin Ellison toil behind them in hopes of getting on the field. Choice said that, within the team, Ellison’s name represents a high standard, and he shared his elation for Jordan-Swilling, about to earn his degree. But Choice doesn’t sugarcoat his message to them about playing time and, in the process, shares a message that undoubtedly will resonate long after their playing careers end.

“And so when I talk to them and I tell them when they’re at, they work their tail off in the process and if the results are not what you want, you’ve just got to continue that cycle on and on and keep working your tail off,” Choice said.

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