Countdown to Kickoff: 54 Days
As the 100 Days to Kickoff series nears the midway point, this week will feature a series of position previews across the roster. These articles will go position-by-position to look at players that have departed, players that return from a year ago, new faces at the position, and the overall outlook for the 2017 season. The overall goal is to examine what the depth chart will look like next season and look at realistic expectations for each position group.
Thus far in our positional preview series we’ve looked at the quarterback and B-back positions, both of which have significant questions heading into the 2017 season. Georgia Tech’s most experienced quarterback has one career start. The second most experienced B-back has one career carry. This isn’t to say those positions won’t perform well in 2017, just that there are a lot of unknowns. There is significantly less mystery surrounding the A-back position. The top three A-backs from 2016 are back, leaving just one or two spots in the rotation for new names to make an impact.
The biggest loss from the 2016 A-backs corps is that of Isiah Willis. The former walk-on didn’t get the ball a ton (just 12 touches for 99 yards in 2016) but was a key member of the rotation and possibly the best blocker at the position. He was one of just two A-backs to play in all 25 games over the last two seasons, making 12 starts over the same span. Willis’s production shouldn’t be too hard to replace but his steady presence and capable blocking could be difficult for a newcomer to replicate.
Also gone from the 2016 team are Austin McClellan and Lynn Griffin. McClellan was a walk-on who played primarily on special teams but was forced into the A-back rotation at times due to injury. He finished his Tech career with 7 carriers for 45 yards. Griffin was a regular member of the rotation early in the season but left the team prior to the North Carolina game for undisclosed personal reasons. He had 13 carries for 56 yards before his departure.
The top three A-backs from last season are back on the Flats for 2017 led by The Man, The Myth, The Legend Clinton Lynch himself. Lynch led the team in scrimmage yards each of the last two seasons, putting up 905 yards and 8 touchdowns on 53 touches for an absolutely insane 17.1 yards per touch in 2016. He’s equally effective as a rusher, receiver, or blocker and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. There’s a strong case to be made that Clinton Lynch is the best player on the offense, if not the entire team.
The other two major returnees are Qua Searcy and J.J. Green. Searcy, the hero of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate 2016, had a pretty strong comeback season after missing most of 2015 with a broken leg. The redshirt junior actually led the A-backs corps in touches with 56 but had about half as many yards as Lynch (456 for Searcy, 905 for Lynch). Searcy still has plenty of explosiveness, as shown on his huge 60 yard touchdown run against UVA. Green was less productive than Lynch and Searcy but still a key contributor from the A-back position. The Georgia transfer had 28 touches for 194 yards in his first season with the Yellow Jackets. Green is a tough, hard-nosed back and, while not the receiver Lynch and Searcy are, he is just as good as a runner.
The only other A-back to have recorded a carry is redshirt sophomore Nathan Cottrell, who had his first, and only carry thus far, against Mercer. Cottrell was a major special teams contributor and Tech’s primary kick returner down the stretch last season. He averaged 20.8 yards per return, where he displayed the speed and elusiveness that made him such a tantalizing prospect. Fellow redshirt sophomore Omahri Jarrett saw playing time last season against Vanderbilt but did not record any stats. Xavier Gantt is coming off his redshirt freshman season and could potentially factor into the rotation. Finally, Chris Turner, Melvin Davis, and Mark Rew are all walk-ons currently listed as A-backs on the roster. While it’s unlikely any will find significant playing time, it’s not unheard of for a walk-on A-back to carve out a role in the rotation (see: Godhigh, Robert and Willis, Isiah).
No pure A-back was signed in the 2017 recruiting class. Jordan Ponchez-Mason, a 3-star prospect, is currently listed as a AB/BB on the roster. It appears that he’s more likely to stick at AB long term but is unlikely to make an impact this season regardless of where he lines up. Two new walk-ons were also added to the roster in Josh Biancato and Zane Ashley, the latter of whom is a preferred walk-on and received a 2-star rating from the 247 composite.
What to Expect
The top line players in the 2017 A-back corps are pretty easy to predict. The last time the top three A-backs returned (without changing positions - Mikell Lands-Davis was the 3rd leading AB in 2015 but returned as a WR in 2016) was in 2011 with Orwin Smith, Roddy, Jones, and Embry Peeples. All three slightly increased their share of the A-back touches that season. Barring injury or a major breakout, it’s safe to expect a similar situation this season. Two out of three of Lynch, Searcy, and Green will start every game, though all three will get plenty of playing time. Lynch and Searcy will likely receive a slightly higher volume of touches than Green but the trio will probably combine for roughly 80% of all touches given to A-backs in 2017.
The players that will fill out the A-back rotation will be the ones that prove they can block effectively on the perimeter. Nathan Cottrell is probably the safest bet to grab a rotation spot. The sophomore brings good size (5’-11”, 193) and great speed to the position. While he probably won’t be called on as a playmaker too often this season, the potential to break off a monster play is there. If the rotation extends to a fifth player, Gantt is a really interesting prospect. His high school tape showed an explosive playmaker who didn’t shy away from contact despite measuring in at just 5’-8” and 167 lbs. That said, it’s more likely that Cottrell and Gantt won’t make their biggest impact until 2018 or 2019.
Projected Depth Chart
1a - Clinton Lynch (R-Jr)
1b - Qua Searcy (R-Jr)
1c - J.J. Green (R-Sr)
4 - Nathan Cottrell (R-So)
5 - Xavier Gantt (R-Fr)
6 - Omahri Jarrett (R-So)