Brent Key’s coordinator change understandable, but reflects poorly on him

Tech head coach Brent Key watches the action on the field with coaching staff during the half of an NCAA football game against Bowling Green Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (Daniel Varnado/ For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Tech head coach Brent Key watches the action on the field with coaching staff during the half of an NCAA football game against Bowling Green Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (Daniel Varnado/ For the AJC)

Perhaps in a year – or maybe even in a month – this will reveal itself to be a masterful decision.

Maybe Georgia Tech coach Brent Key’s decision to demote defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker after five games and replace him with linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer will prove to be a turning point in the season and a pivotal moment in Key’s tenure, a bold move that raised the defense’s performance and positively altered the season’s course.

But in the moment, it doesn’t reflect well on Key or his program. After Thacker’s defense played an integral role in the Yellow Jackets’ 4-4 finish that helped Key secure the full-time job, Key awarded him a two-year contract along with a raise. It appeared a solid indication of Key’s confidence in Thacker. But after five games, Key reversed course, saying Tuesday that he believed the defense needed a new voice and new energy.

“I don’t care what it reflects on me,” Key said. “That’s why I’m the head coach. … I care what matters most to those players and to Georgia Tech.”

The change is understandable, and it appears the decision was building and not a kneejerk reaction to the defense’s dreadful play against Bowling Green. Poor tackling and frequent big plays have dogged the Jackets.

Interestingly, even after the win at Wake Forest two Saturdays ago, when the defense amassed eight sacks after recording just one in the first three games, Key was not fully enthused about the performance.

“It is something we can build on, but now when you set that expectation to be able to do that, we’ve got to consistently do that, build on it, be able to do it week in and week out,” he said in post-game comments in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Jackets followed that by allowing Bowling Green to average 8.0 yards per passing attempt. The Falcons were more than twice as efficient in YPA than they were the previous Saturday in a 38-7 home loss to Ohio. That’s Ohio, not Ohio State.

Still, this is far from the norm. Coaches don’t routinely demote one of their coordinators five games into their tenure. That would especially be the case when the coach was the interim for eight games in the previous season with the same coordinator and had an extended close-up look at his capabilities. And even more so when the two were on the same staff for the three years prior to that.

Retaining Thacker after last season was one of his two biggest decisions, along with bringing in Buster Faulkner to run the offense. It doesn’t speak well of Key’s ability to assemble a staff that he deemed it necessary to backtrack on one of those two hires after less than half a season, especially given, as noted, that he had all the information and understanding of Thacker that he could ever expect to have of a candidate. Building a strong staff is a significant part of the job, one of the most critical aspects of his mentor George O’Leary’s successful run at Tech.

Tech assistant Andrew Thacker reacts during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 25, 2021. Georgia Tech won 45-22 over North Carolina. (Hyosub Shin /


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If Thacker is, in fact, the source of the defense’s shortcomings – and the next seven games will provide the answer – then Key’s misread of him last offseason will mean that his defense will have played for the wrong coach for spring practice, preseason and five games. It could cost the Jackets their first bowl berth since 2018.

And if play doesn’t improve over the following seven games, it would indicate that Thacker wasn’t actually the problem – or at least not the only problem. And at that point, Key will presumably have to find a replacement for Sherrer and determine if there are even bigger problems with fielding an effective defense. Only this time, candidates would be aware that they would be working for someone who just made clear that job security becomes a fuzzy concept after five games.

A theory that would help explain the change with Thacker is that maybe Key wasn’t entirely on board with Thacker when he retained him but felt compelled to keep him given how well the defense played during Key’s eight-game tryout as interim. And, if that were the case, Thacker went into the season needing to show results quickly.

It would make more sense of why Key would be able to make a change as quickly as he did. Over five games, he would have seen what he needed to see and be ready to install Sherrer, with whom Key had never worked but who had coached with several coaches he trusts, such as quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke and Alabama coach Nick Saban.

Regardless, the Jackets aren’t in ideal shape five games into the Key administration. Fans hoping for more than losses to lower-tier schools and blowout losses to the upper crust – two distinctives of former coach Geoff Collins’ ill-fated tenure – have instead been treated to more of the same.

On the plus side, they won a road game against Wake Forest. But they lost the season opener to Louisville after taking a 28-13 lead at halftime. Most fans expected Tech to lose at Ole Miss. But, hoping for an encouraging outcome, they saw the Jackets fall 48-23. And then the unacceptable defeat to Bowling Green, a game Tech trailed 38-14 late in the third quarter.

Some of the responsibility falls on the defense – and hence on Thacker, not to mention the other defensive assistants, including Sherrer. But not all of it. Against Bowling Green, the offense scored 14 points in its first eight possessions (including six consecutive empty drives) before adding 14 moot points in the final quarter and change.

A standard punt turned into mayhem when the snap hit one of the upbacks because he was lined up in the ball’s path to punter David Shanahan. After committing 14 penalties against Wake Forest, the Jackets were called for another six against Bowling Green. That’s a shortage of discipline and attention to detail that ultimately falls on Key, who has prioritized both of those concepts. To his credit, he has accepted full responsibility for the team’s performance.

Replacing Thacker could well be a very beneficial decision. And, at the least, Key did not waste time to make a bold decision once he believed it was the proper course of action.

Now all he has to do is make sure it works.