Georgia Tech tight end Tyler Davis (9) and Georgia Tech offensive lineman Jared Southers (70) during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday, November 21, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com) 
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

How two of Georgia Tech’s leaders found purpose in a long, hard season

They parachuted into the eye of great change for Georgia Tech football, strangers dropped into a roiling soup of new ideas and low expectations. For the price of another season playing this college game, they would be asked to do more than keep the faith – they would need to actually stoke it. All while losing 75 percent of the time, including once against an FCS team, The Citadel.  

With their one and only season at Tech drawing near an end, grad transfers Tyler Davis (tight end, from Connecticut) and Jared Southers (tackle, from Vanderbilt) last week looked back on the first season of Geoff Collins, looked ahead at where they go from here, and tried to put into perspective their decision to spend a final collegiate hurrah on a team where winning couldn’t be the greatest goal. 

“It might sound weird to some people,” former Commodore Southers said, “this will be the worst record I had in college, but this will be the best year I had in college.”

Following Thursday night’s victory over North Carolina State, the Yellow Jackets were 3-8, with one game remaining against heavily favored Georgia. 

Even for a coach who speaks in ALL CAPS, Collins gets especially upper case when addressing the contributions of these two guys. He’ll tell you those influences extend beyond the 15 catches (140 yards) for Davis as the program’s first tight end in more than a decade and Southers’ thus-far 11 starts at either right guard or tackle. For as long as he is at Tech, for as many fifth-year seniors as he coaches in their entirety here, Collins may never find truer acolytes than these two one-and-dones.

“When you look back at the development of this program a couple years from now, Tyler Davis and Jared Southers might be two of the most impactful people in the development, the baseline, the foundation of this program,” the coach said.

So, why Georgia Tech?

Southers: “It started off with committing to coach Collins when he was at Temple and four days later, he got the job here. He was bringing everybody with him, and I came along with him as well.

“I just really believed in the vision he has for this place. I didn’t know as much about Georgia Tech – although they did recruit me back in high school (in New Jersey). I was pleasantly surprised with the group of guys we have here and how receptive they were with me and the other new guys. It has been great working with them every day. I’m going to miss that.”

Davis: “I just came here knowing the transition that was going to take place (he had also considered Rutgers and Louisville). I always thought of myself as a leader and I knew that this program would be in kind of a transitional mode. I wanted to be a guy who could come in and lead a bunch of dudes and show them the right way to do things. That’s the thing I tried since the day I got here, just trying to show guys the right way to do things, work as hard as you possibly can every day, give everything that you have, and I hope I’ve been doing it for those guys.”

The great meaning of a small number

While Davis arrived determined to be a beacon of leadership at what was a new position in the once option-based offense, he had to prove a few things yet to the coaching staff. Yeah, they do things around Tech a little differently with the new sheriff in town.

Having worn No. 9 at UConn, Davis was informed he wouldn’t be getting that automatically at Tech.

Davis: “I got 89 in my locker when I got here, and (Collins) told me the way it worked in this program is that single digits are earned. And if I earned it, I’d get it. I told him I’d work as hard as I could.

“(About two months later)I got to my locker one day and there was a No. 9 jersey. I didn’t know about it, he didn’t tell me, it was a surprise. I picked up my jersey like any other regular and saw it, and my face lit up. I got real excited.” 

Georgia Tech tackle Jared Southers (70) sets a block against North Carolina State Thursday night. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The culture of a little extra

Earlier last week as players straggled back to the locker room from the practice fields, the autumn light fading, one of the last to return was Davis, in the company of Tech’s young tight ends.

Davis: “Every day I make them do something extra. Most days it’s collective, receivers and tight ends. And I’ll always get stuff with tight ends separately. It’s something we’ve always done since the day I got here. I take great pride in leading those guys in the right direction and setting a good foundation for them to build off when I leave.”

Tech quarterback James Graham: “(Davis) could be a coach in my eyes. He’s great on and off the field. He shows those two Dylans (freshmen TEs Dylan Leonard and Dylan Deveney) the right way. He represents those guys well. After the game Saturday (a 45-0 loss to Virginia Tech) they were up at 6 a.m. at Waffle House. That’s great. I don’t think I could do that. That’s building bonds, showing them the right way.” 

Davis: “Obviously coming off a disappointing loss we wanted to get in as early as possible and put it to bed. So, we did get Waffle House at 6 a.m. and then came in and watched film. That’s every Sunday for us. We’re one of the first position groups in here.”

It’s the same kind of approach for Southers, upon whom coaches leaned heavily to tutor the younger linemen as the Yellow Jackets underwent a big change in blocking schemes.

Southers: “Coming in with a new coach (line coach and run-game coordinator Brent Key) and being a new guy myself, we did a lot of things together in terms of drill work. I was the only guy who had somewhat previous experience in that pro-style system, so a lot of it was put on me in terms of running the workouts on our own, trying to teach these guys all I knew.

“That was special to me, to pour all that I can into other people.”

Collins: “The identity that Davis and Southers have gotten established in those two position rooms will last a long time around here.”

A parting gift of a captaincy

On Nov. 17, every Tech player was given a vote to select the four best teammates and the four best leaders this season. The coaches would tally the votes and arrive at a top four who would be footnoted in the history of this season of change as permanent captains. 

The next day, Davis, Southers, and seniors Nathan Cottrell and David Curry received text messages to report to Collins’ office. The boss then gave them their title. 

Southers: “It was interesting coming in with Tyler, we kind of went through everything together. When we look back three to five years from now and see the success of this program, we’ll feel a sense of pride knowing we helped lay the foundation for that. (The captaincy) is something cool in that way.”

Davis: “It means the world to me coming from the players, coming in as a grad transfer. I’ve seen it in the past, guys are there for one year and they’re not really close to the team. I tried to make it an emphasis that when I got here, I was going to try to be a brother to every single guy we have. That’s probably the best achievement I’ve had here, to be voted on as captain by my own teammates.”

Georgia Tech tight end Tyler Davis (9) scores a touchdown with North Carolina linebacker Dominique Ross (3) and defensive back Don Chapman defending during the second half of an NCAA college football game against North Carolina, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. North Carolina won 38-22. (Special-John Amis)
Photo: John Amis

Few wins, but fewer regrets  

If the grad transfers had come to Tech looking for a big collegiate send-off before entering the real world, the two were set up for disappointment. But with eyes wide open, they seemed to know going in that there were very slight odds that this would be a victorious farewell tour.

Both plan to put the finishing touches on a masters in economics in the spring. Like every other scholarship athlete, they harbor NFL dreams. If that doesn’t pan out, they should have strong career fallback positions.

In one short year at Tech, on a team likely destined to have won only three games once its obligation with Georgia is done Saturday, it’s fair to wonder if these two regretted at all the decision to come to The Flats. Not by the sound of it.

Southers: “Every week, working hard with my guys, it’s been really fun. No matter what the outcome is at the end of the week, we still show up the next day ready to work and try to get better. That’s a testament to how you should live your life. No matter what happens all you can do is control what you can control and try to get better every day.

“That’s what they preach every day. Don’t be outcome oriented, be process oriented and then eventually the outcome will take care of itself.”

Davis: “It’s like I’ve played college football forever. It’s not a bad thing. I love college football. There’s nothing like it. You look at the bands, the students, the alumni, there’s nothing like college football. I tell people this all the time: If I could play another five years of college football, I would. It’s truly special.

“It was cool to see the progress that was made, not just in the season with wins and losses. How people have developed. How people have bought into the process. How people have worked harder than they ever have here in the past, I think that’s the stuff I’ll look back on most.

“When I turn on the TV next year or two years, three years, whenever (to watch Tech), I know I’ll have some part of that.”  

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