Buster Faulkner begins at Georgia Tech at the right time

Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner shouts instructions during spring practice at Alexander Rose Bowl field on Monday, March 13, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner shouts instructions during spring practice at Alexander Rose Bowl field on Monday, March 13, 2023. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

About five months after expressing his fortune to be Georgia Tech’s offensive coordinator, Buster Faulkner revisited his gratitude Wednesday.

“Like I’ve told you guys before, I feel like the luckiest man alive because I’m right where I want to be,” Faulkner said at a post-practice media session.

The declaration sounded genuine. At the age of 41, Faulkner has ascended to the highest point of his career. Even better, he and his family are back in his native Georgia. Faulkner and his wife, Tia, were high-school sweethearts at Parkview High, which Faulkner quarterbacked to its first state title in 1997. Both of their families remain in the area.

“Love the state, love the high-school coaches in the state,” he said. “I think it’s the best state for high-school football in America.”

He is making a tidy sum ($750,000 annually) to boot. Faulkner has undoubtedly worked hard for the opportunity, spending the past three years on coach Kirby Smart’s staff at Georgia as a quality-control assistant. (The snarkier Tech fan might add that Faulkner also is lucky because he no longer has to live in Athens – har har har.) Regardless, his sense of serendipity is entirely appropriate.

What’s more, Faulkner’s good fortune doesn’t end with his hire by coach Brent Key. After the win-deficient tenure of former coach Geoff Collins, fan expectations have been lowered to the point that you probably could trip over them. Not a bad way for a coordinator to settle in.

Faulkner doesn’t have to shape the offense into the class of the ACC for his first season to be a success. If a) the Yellow Jackets can nail down six wins to make a bowl game for the first time since 2018 and b) the offense plays a contributing role, Faulkner will earn a seal of approval from the fan base. Certainly, internal aspirations are higher. But after five wins last season (four earned in Key’s eight-game tryout) and nine total in the three previous seasons, the next step is a bowl game.

Faulkner’s responsibility is improving an offense that finished 114th in FBS in total offense, 124th in scoring and 121st in third-down efficiency. It wasn’t a case of being incapable. The offense showed at various points last year that it could at least run the ball effectively. Faulkner would seem to have an orchard’s worth of low-hanging fruit to pluck to improve efficiency and consistency.

“It’s just trying to find the right pieces and get the right guys on the field at the same time to give us a chance to move the ball and score touchdowns,” he said.

The combination of Faulkner’s knack for designing offenses to fit the talent, Key’s insistence on playing with toughness and discipline and the collection of potential playmakers could go a long way to help Tech flee the bottom of the ACC and bound into the sweet embrace of the bowl-eligible middle.

With returning players and the work that Key, Faulkner and the coaching staff did in recruiting the transfer portal, the offense has enough pieces to be decent. Running backs Dontae Smith and Trey Cooley (transfer from Louisville) and wide receivers Malik Rutherford and Dominick Blaylock (transfer from Georgia) are among the skill-position players whom Faulkner should be able to use to fashion an offense that can outdo 17.2 points per game, the Jackets’ average last season.

Faulkner also will oversee a quarterback competition between returnee Zach Pyron and Texas A&M transfer Haynes King. A few days into the start of the preseason, the outcome appears genuinely undecided.

The big question mark is Faulkner’s offensive line, which returns four starters, most notably three-year starter Jordan Williams. However, the line was in the bottom half of the conference a year ago, and it likely won’t be the biggest and baddest front in the ACC. But, again, it doesn’t have to be superior for Tech to achieve success in 2023.

“It’s so hard to know with the offensive line, to be honest, but I think the faith that you should have in guys that have played in games is that (experience) should get them to a place where they’re decent to good,” ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain Roddy Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And they don’t have to be great. They don’t have to be good. They have to be decent.”

Interestingly, Faulkner said he didn’t take an in-depth look at the line’s play from last season, saying it’s in the past and he was concerned about the future.

“The biggest thing that we’re trying to do upfront is create depth and create versatility,” Faulkner said. “I think that’s the most important thing that we’ve got to do. It’s a work in progress, just like every other position. But I like the way those guys are working.”

Is Edward Harrison Faulkner (aka Buster) the right coach for the job? He was an offensive coordinator at three FBS schools before Tech – Middle Tennessee State (2011-15), Arkansas State (2016-18) and Southern Mississippi (2019). As is often the case, statistics can shape the perception of those stops differently. For instance, in his eight full seasons at the three schools (in his first year at MTSU he became coordinator midway through the season), his offenses were in the top half of their leagues in both total offense and scoring offense six out of eight years.

At Middle Tennessee, he coordinated an offense that had a 61/39 run/pass ratio in 2014 and then a 43/57 ratio two seasons later – a remarkable display of flexibility – with both teams earning bowl eligibility.

On the other hand, other statistics indicate that his impact – compared with how the teams’ offenses fared before, during and after his time as play-caller – was mixed. At Arkansas State, for instance, the Red Wolves averaged 2.42 points per drive in the four seasons before his hire, 2.13 during his three seasons and then 2.1 in the four seasons after he left, according to data on the analytics site BCF Toys.

Another concern: In eight seasons, Faulkner’s offenses ranked higher than 78th in red-zone touchdown percentage just twice, according to CFB Stats – a troublesome pattern for a team that likely won’t have much margin for error.

There’s context for all of it, though. Faulkner will have his shot to demonstrate his worth as a game planner and play-caller.

“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “I wouldn’t be sitting here in the chair that I’m in if they’d been winning a bunch of games. Bottom line. I know what my job is to do – score points and find a way to win games.”

Again, it doesn’t even have to be a lot of points. Just enough for six wins.