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Football: Key Position Battles - A-back

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NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Amid the death of hopes, dreams, and the term “plug-and-play” as Tech’s offense sputtered last season, one quiet bright spot was the collective improvement of the A-backs over the course of the season. Sure, they were never perfect—a unit relying heavily on freshmen can never expect to be mistake-free. But as time went on, the A-backs became better and better at finding running lanes and, more importantly, cutting down on missed blocking assignments. A group that looked utterly lost against Notre Dame in mid-September helped to pave the way for long drives against Florida State five weeks later.

There’s still plenty of growing to do, but as fall camp rolls on, the A-back corps seems to be benefiting from two things that were sorely lacking last offseason: in-game experience and (so far) top-to-bottom health. With less than three weeks to go until the season opener, several intriguing players who missed most or all of last season are pushing last year’s top returnees for playing time.

The Main Contenders

If anyone is close to locking up a starting spot, it’s sophomore Clinton Lynch, a breakout star in 2015 who delivered a number of impressive plays on the ground and through the air. Lynch finished the season with 457 rushing yards, 267 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns scored—good for third, second, and first on the team, respectively. His 9.5 yards-per-carry average was the highest by a Tech player with 30+ carries since 2011. Lynch still has plenty of room to develop as a blocker, but there’s no denying his playmaking ability.

Currently penciled in as the starter across from Lynch is senior Isiah Willis, a former walk-on. Willis has emerged as the best blocking A-back on the team, and that will be his most valuable asset in his final season, but he’s a threat with the ball in his hands too. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and his 270 total yards last season were second only to Lynch among the A-backs.

Sophomore Qua Searcy was one of the first in-season casualties last season, suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Notre Dame in Week 3. He got the ball plenty before that, recording a combined 16 touches for 121 total yards, and he flashed potential as both a runner and receiver before going down. If he’s back to full strength, Searcy could be every bit the explosive playmaker that Lynch was a year ago—though like Lynch, he still has to work on blocking.

In the Mix

Lynn Griffin spent three-plus seasons at defensive back before crossing over to offense early last season, and though the rising senior needed some time to adjust to his new position, he made an impact late in the season. Of Griffin’s 14 carries last season, 10 of them were in Tech’s final two games. He’s a gifted athlete who has picked up his new position quickly.

Also very much of interest are two players who have yet to suit up for Tech in a game: redshirt freshman Nate Cottrell and junior J.J. Green. Cottrell appeared in line to play as a true freshman before a torn ACL in the spring ended his season. After a year spent recovering, he was given the green light in fall camp and is reportedly at or near full speed, which is exciting for a player who was once clocked at 4.33 in the 40-yard dash. Green, meanwhile, sat out last season after transferring from Georgia, where he averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a freshman in 2013 but was moved to safety the following season. The position change prompted his transfer, as he wanted an opportunity to play running back at a high level.

Other Candidates

A few other players are on the outside looking in, but they could at least see occasional snaps. Senior walk-on Austin McClellan has mostly seen mop-up duty in his career but was part of the A-back rotation against North Carolina last season. Redshirt freshman Omahri Jarrett and true freshman Xavier Gantt have a chance to contribute, but neither is in position to make a major impact, and redshirting Gantt would give him class separation from Jarrett and Cottrell. Two more walk-ons, redshirt freshman Chris Turner and true freshman Jackie Harris, are in the mix but are unlikely to see the field much.

What to Expect

The depth chart is fluid but looks roughly like this:

Projected A-back Depth Chart
Position Option 1 Option 2 Option 3 Option 4
A-back 1 Clinton Lynch (R-So.) Qua Searcy (R-So.) Nate Cottrell (R-Fr.) Austin McClellan (R-Sr.)
A-back 2 Isiah Willis (R-Sr.) Lynn Griffin (R-Sr.) J.J. Green (R-Jr.) Omahri Jarrett (R-Fr.)

Lynch should start at one spot and Willis is a logical choice at the other spot, giving Tech a running and receiving threat on one side and a gifted blocker on the other. That said, the role of starting A-back is somewhat of a token title. Paul Johnson rotates in a new A-back on virtually every play, and realistically 5-7 of the A-backs should play regularly during the season.

Searcy and Griffin will both see the field early and often. Green and Cottrell are both tremendous athletes, but as is often the case in the Tech offense, blocking ability will be the most important factor in determining playing time among the rotational backs.

Barring multiple injuries, it’s unlikely that many of the other A-backs make a major impact. Then again, Lynch’s emergence as a star in 2015 was a fairly unexpected and very pleasant surprise. It’s not out of the question that something similar happens again... though ideally this time it would involve everyone staying healthy along the way.