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Georgia Tech Football: 2016 Position Previews - A-Back

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Somebody’s going to have a breakout season. The question is, who?

Countdown to Kickoff: 59 Days

As our 100 Days to Kickoff series continues to tick down, we begin our position previews to provide an in-depth look at who will be on the field for the Yellow Jackets this year. Each position has seen some old faces leave and new ones take their place. This week is all about becoming more familiar with the depth chart and getting an idea of what to expect out of each position group this fall.

2016 Position Previews: A-Back

For the first seven years of the Paul Johnson era, many Yellow Jacket fans (myself included) considered the A-Back position to be "plug and play." First it was Roddy Jones and Embry Peeples. Then in it was Orwin Smith. Next up was Robert Godhigh. It seemed that every year a new back rose out of the depth chart into stardom with no dip in production from the position. That dip came in 2015. Through a combination of inexperience and injuries, the performance from the 2015 A-Backs corps was as bad as it has been under Coach Johnson. Perimeter blocking was poor, ball control problematic, and it seemed an A-Back was as likely to be tackled for a loss as pick up positive yardage in key situations.

Despite stumbling last year, this year’s A-Backs might be as talented as any under Coach Johnson. Many players who otherwise would not have seen much playing time last year were forced into action, leaving the Jackets with plenty of depth at the position. The young A-Backs of 2015 have another offseason under their belts to train and study. The missteps and mistakes in 2015 are now lessons learned for 2016 and into the future. Let’s take a deeper look at what the A-back position has to offer this season.

Who’s Gone?

One of the biggest losses on the offensive side of the ball is the graduation of Broderick Snoddy. A broken hand limited Snoddy to only 8 games last season, but his electric speed and leadership will surely be missed at a position that still has a lot of youth. For what it’s worth, two little used, walk-on A-Backs, Denis Onwualu and Roberto Hinojosa, have also graduated.

In addition to graduations, there have been several players that have switched positions since the start of the 2015 season. In the second week of the season, Matthew Jordan switched back to QB after the season-ending knee injury to backup QB Tim Byerly. Jordan will continue to serve as Justin Thomas’s primary backup this season. Sophomore TaQuon Marshall, who saw some game time as a true freshman last season, switched to QB this spring and will likely redshirt this season. Other position changes include redshirt freshman KirVonte Benson, who will be part of the B-Back competition, and sophomore Mikell Lands-Davis, who will play wide receiver.

Who’s Back?

Five A-Backs that saw meaningful playing time in 2015 return to the roster this season. Redshirt sophomore Clinton Lynch was one of the few bright spots on offense last season. In his first year of play, Lynch was third on the team in rushing, putting up 457 yards on 48 carries along with 273 receiving yards and 8 total touchdowns. He really came into his own as the season progressed, highlighted by a monster game against Virginia (132 total yards, 3 TDs). Fellow redshirt sophomore Qua Searcy appeared to be on a verge of a breakout campaign (2 TDs against Tulane) before suffering a season-ending leg injury against Notre Dame. Searcy appears to be nearly back to 100% and ready for the upcoming season.

Also returning are three fifth-year seniors. Former walk-on Isiah Willis was a key member of the offense despite not putting up the numbers Lynch did. Lynn Griffin will remain at A-Back for his senior season after converting from defensive back prior to the North Carolina game last year. Finally, preferred walk-on Austin McClellan will return to the fold this season. McClellan only carried the ball three times last season, but saw playing time in 11 games.

Who’s New?

The biggest addition to the A-Back rotation will be Georgia transfer J.J. Green. The redshirt junior played two seasons at Georgia, finishing second on the team in rushing in 2013, his true freshman season. Despite his success, he found himself the odd man out in a crowded backfield in 2014, switching to defensive back. Green wanted to play running back and played in a Wing-T system in high school so he came to his senses and left Athens to make his new home on the Flats.

Two other newcomers look to make impacts in 2016. Nate Cottrell was expected to see playing time last season as a true freshman, but a knee injury suffered in August practices forced the speedy Cottrell to take a redshirt season. Omahri Jarrett also took a redshirt in his true freshman season and looks to get some playing time this season.

Finally, the 2016 recruiting class boasts a dynamic  A-Back in Xavier Gantt. Gantt was one of the highest rated recruits in the class and has what it takes to be a true star for Georgia Tech. However, like most true freshman, he will probably take a redshirt season to learn the offense and add a little bit of muscle. Tech also added walk-on Jackie Harris.

Projected Depth Chart

First Team Second Team Third Team
AB Qua Searcy, R-So J.J. Green, R-Jr Nate Cottrell, R-Fr
AB Clinton Lynch, R-So Lynn Griffin, R-Sr Isiah Willis, R-Sr

What Should we Expect?

Historically, Paul Johnson likes to shuffle A-Backs in and out of the game, using the position to run plays in from the sideline. Ultimately, Coach Johnson tends to settle on a six to seven man rotation. This season, I tend to think that rotation will ultimately be between the six names shown in the projected depth chart above. Jarrett and McClellan both have opportunities to sneak in as a seventh or even eighth man in the rotation, but barring injury or blowouts, I don’t project either to get consistent playing time at A-Back. Both will likely see time on special teams and Jarrett may factor into the return game.

Based on past history, two or three A-Backs tend to emerge out of the rotation as lead ball carriers at the position. For example, last season Lynch and Willis combined for 51% of the touches by A-Backs, while contributing 59% of the total A-Back yardage. This year, I expect Clinton Lynch to build on his success last season and be the lead A-Back. Lynch is extremely versatile, having shown success as both a rusher and a receiver. Early last season, it looked like Qua Searcy had a chance to be one of the featured A-Backs, and assuming he has recovered from his injury, I fully expect him to be one this season. In limited playing time, Searcy showed an explosiveness and tough running style that, combined with good receiving skills, should allow him to have the breakout season he was denied last year.

The battle for playing time behind Lynch and Searcy is a little bit murkier. Griffin only has half a season under his belt at A-Back. Willis lacks some of the physical traits his competition possesses. For all the hype surrounding J.J. Green and Nate Cottrell, neither has played a meaningful down for Georgia Tech yet. If I had to predict now, I would say that J.J. Green is the most likely to emerge as the third option at A-Back. Green is an extremely talented runner and is back in the system similar to the one he played in in high school. He did get forced out of the Georgia backfield, but there’s really no shame in being the odd man out among two current NFL running backs (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and two future NFL running backs (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel). Nate Cottrell is definitely a dark horse for the third A-Back spot as he boasts elite speed (4.33 40 time before the knee injury) that makes him hard to catch in the open field.

While I expect the bulk of the carries at A-Back to be distributed between Lynch, Searcy, and Green, Lynn Griffin and Isiah Willis will see plenty of playing time this season. The biggest thing that stood out to me on the projected depth chart above was Willis on the third team. I would not be shocked if Willis started alongside Lynch at the beginning of the season. Willis started 10 games last season, and while injuries to Snoddy and Searcy may have played a factor in those starts, that still shows a level of trust from the coaching staff. Willis is also the best blocker among the A-Backs. If the offensive line doesn’t show improvement, Willis could see a lot of playing time to help give QB Justin Thomas time to operate.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about the A-Back rotation in 2016, but one thing is for sure. Anchored by 2015 breakout Clinton Lynch, this is a very talented, very exciting group of players. The future looks to be very bright on the Flats.