During the Yellow Jackets’ magical Orange Bowl run in 2014, one of the more overlooked strengths of the team was its two major receiving threats on the perimeter — DeAndre Smelter (now of the 49ers) and Darren Waller (now of the Ravens). After the season, each graduated and were taken in the NFL Draft, leaving Georgia Tech with a couple of holes to fill heading into 2015. The Yellow Jackets did so with the trio of juniors Ricky Jeune and Micheal Summers, and true freshman Brad Stewart. The results were, predictably, a downgrade from the previous year. After Smelter and Waller combined for 61 catches, 1,157 yards, and 13 TD’s in 2014, the new trio combined for only 43 catches, 791 yards, and 6 TD’s last year. Though close in yards per catch (18.97 in 2014 to 18.40 in 2015), last year’s crop of receivers were being pushed into their roles for the first time and lacked the big-play productivity that Justin Thomas had enjoyed the year before. (It should be mentioned that some offensive line issues also contributed to passing game deficiencies.)
What resulted from the degradation in passing productivity was an overall degradation in offensive productivity. 2015 served as an illustration that, although Paul Johnson’s offense is typically run-heavy in play selection and perception, an effective passing game is crucial to the offense’s success. As such, a huge part of improvement in Georgia Tech’s offense this fall will be improvement in the passing game, which could easily involve some new faces on the perimeter.
The Main Contenders
After the departure of Summers late in the year, Jeune and Stewart return as the likely starters this fall. At 6’3”, Jeune is the closest thing on the Yellow Jackets’ roster to continuing their trend of strong receivers who make good use of their large frames. Jeune does well to fight off one-on-one coverage, and has been known to make occasional highlight reel catches as well. He could stand to add more speed to his game, and more agility in running routes, to help him to separate from defenders.
Opposite Jeune in the starting lineup, Georgia Tech will likely slot Brad Stewart. The Savannah native received a full scholarship offer just days before National Signing Day in 2015, and ended up playing significant time as a true freshman, even starting five games along the way. While not athletically dominant, Stewart does jump well and has sure hands, as well as great instincts when it comes to catching the ball at its highest point in coverage. Stewart blocks well too and is generally a savvy, solid player with a high floor. As mentioned, Stewart is not particularly athletic for a Power-5 wide receiver, but with proper training in the offseason he may have been able to add some more speed to his repertoire — a critical addition if he’s to reach his full potential of causing problems for opposing defenses.
The primary challenger for a starting spot at wide receiver figures to be Mikell Lands-Davis, who was a true freshman in 2015 as well. After beginning his career at B-Back, Lands-Davis was moved to A-Back early into the season to help bolster the group amid several injuries. After playing significant time at his new position through the final half of the season, Lands-Davis moved again to wide receiver during Georgia Tech’s spring practices. While the type of move that would usually raise a few eyebrows, the move made some sense — Georgia Tech returns a wealth of talent and experience at A-Back in 2016, and it’s important to get one of the team’s best, most versatile athletes on the field. Further, Lands-Davis proved last year to be excellent as a receiver in the passing game, and a very physical blocking presence on the perimeter. At only 5’11” and lacking particularly impressive top-end speed, Lands-Davis will have to work to get separation from defenders at wide receiver. That said, his 210-pound frame, its associated strength, and his experience as a running back will give him a level of physicality that can cause big problems for a lot of corners that exhibit more slight frames.
In the Mix
Equally experienced as Jeune, and arguably the most physically gifted returning wide receiver on the roster, is Antonio Messick. Originally a member of the 2013 recruiting class, Messick has a very high ceiling due to his athleticism and physicality, but has struggled with refining his game and with staying healthy. His game tends to be very inconsistent, but occasionally shows flashes of brilliance. 2016 figures to be more of the same from Messick, with periodic action in various capacities, although you won’t see him in every game or on the receiving end of many passes.
After redshirting in 2015, Harland Howell is set to see some playing time in 2016. At 6’3”, 220 pounds, Howell is very physical and has gotten good reviews out of practice and camp. He also enrolled in January 2015, giving him extra experience in Georgia Tech’s offense and extra time in the college weight room to develop his body. Howell is a bit of a sleeper candidate for a breakout player of the year.
Jalen Camp is the last potential player to be “in the mix” for playing time at wide receiver. A two-star prospect who flipped to Georgia Tech from a commitment to Liberty, Camp was referred to as the “best-kept secret in the state” by his high school coach, who’s had experience coaching recent top-tier recruits. As a senior, Camp was out-lifting pretty much his entire team in the weight room, including folks on the offensive and defensive lines. His body is very college-ready for a player at his position, and we may see him get some playing time this fall as a result.
Christian Philpott was a fellow classmate of Howell and Stewart in the 2015 recruiting class, and was the highest-rated by any recruiting service. He’s been hampered in his career thus far by injuries, including their side effect of Philpott adding weight and losing a bit of his speed. As a recruit, he was listed around 200 pounds, and today he’s listed at 220 pounds. That extra weight comes with more physicality, but also naturally affects his speed. Philpott continues to work through injuries, but seems to have a very high ceiling if he’s able to stay healthy and get some experience under his belt.
Steve Dolphus comes in as a true freshman this fall. Listed at 6’5”, 200 pounds, he brings a similar set of physical gifts as Jeune. With the depth in front of him consisting of players with similar skill sets, it’s likely that Dolphus redshirts in 2016 and doesn’t play until spring practice.
Finally, Jair Hawkins-Anderson is also a true freshman. That said, there’s a chance that he plays, primarily because his set of skills brings something unique to the position group — Hawkins-Anderson possesses the speed necessary to give the team a main deep threat, if the coaches decide that his style of play would be a necessary addition to the passing game.
What to Expect
Here’s a look at how these guys shake out:
|Position||First String||Second String||Third String|
|Wide Receiver||Ricky Jeune (R-Jr)
Brad Stewart (So)
|Mikell Lands-Davis (So)
Harland Howell (R-Fr)
|Antonio Messick (R-Jr)
Jalen Camp (Fr)
Christian Philpott (R-Fr)
Overall, the trio of Jeune, Stewart, and Lands-Davis figure to get a majority of the offense’s snaps at wide receiver this year, while you’ll see a more sparing mix of the remainder of the players listed above. The exceptions to that would be true freshmen that could redshirt, which is a possibility for all three, although there’s also a chance that Camp and/or Hawkins-Anderson make the field.