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Football: 2019 Signing Class Film Review - WR

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With more passing in the future, Tech has re-stocked the cupboard at wideout

NCAA Football: Miami at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

For Paul Johnson’s entire tenure, Tech focused on recruiting wide receivers with very specific attributes: good size, good blocking skills, and the ability to win jump balls. Whenever Tech went after a smaller, quicker receiver, it was with the intent of having him play A-back.

Like everything else associated with the offensive transition, this has changed.

New coach Geoff Collins and his staff set out to restock the wide receiver corps to prepare the team to run a more balanced offense. They locked up the two receivers who had previously committed to Johnson, then brought in two more in the weeks that followed and secured an in-conference transfer to round out the class. Bringing in five receivers in Collins’ first class was a strong statement, and as the Jackets get ready to begin the transition, they will have no shortage of options at a position group where everyone will be learning on the fly.

Zach Owens

Height/Weight: 6-3 / 198

Hometown: Marietta, GA (Pope HS)

A local product, Owens committed back in April 2018 and stayed true to his word even after the coaching change. While his size is what immediately jumps out on paper, he’s a very versatile athlete who could emerge as a threat on the outside for Tech.

Owens never posted film from his full senior year, likely because he was set on signing with Tech and never felt the need, but his midseason highlight reel shows what he can do.

By far his most valuable skill is his pass-catching ability. Whether he’s mid-stride, waiting on a curl route, or going up to catch a jump ball, Owens consistently puts his hands out to snag passes instead of waiting for them to come to him. That sort of aggressiveness can be hard to teach, and it bodes well for Owens’ ability to make an early impact.

He has good speed and agility for his size, and his long stride makes his full-speed running look almost effortless. His coach at Pope frequently had him run sweeps out of the backfield to take advantage of his skills. It’s extremely unlikely that Owens will do much of that at Tech, but he wouldn’t be a bad option for an occasional WR reverse. On a few of those sweeps, he shows off a decent stiff-arm, which is hardly vital for a receiver prospect but is still a useful ability, particularly with his length.

Absent from this reel is Owens blocking on the perimeter. It’s not quite as crucial of a skill as it would be in Johnson’s flexbone system, but receiver blocking is important in every offensive system.

Kalani Norris

Height/Weight: 6-0 / 180

Hometown: Miami, FL (Columbus HS)

Norris was the other wideout who committed before Johnson’s retirement, and he too decided to stick around for the Collins regime. He probably would have ended up at A-back in the flexbone, but he’ll be right at home as a wide receiver in a spread attack.

Two things jump out right away for Norris. He can change direction seemingly on a dime, whether he’s cutting on a route or evading a defender. Along with that, his acceleration is as good as anyone on Tech’s roster right now. He can leave defenders in the dust if he’s given a little room to get rolling. The combination of these two makes him a potentially lethal receiver if he’s able to get the ball in space.

Norris is an interesting case as a pass catcher. He tends to catch it at his body instead of putting his hands out to get the ball. This is something he’ll need to work on, but it’s also not always his fault. On plenty of plays, he ends up having to let the ball come to him because the pass ends up at his hip or his feet rather than at his chest. To Norris’s credit, he’s able to make catches on balls thrown pretty much everywhere in his vicinity, so the raw talent is there.

As a blocker, Norris is nothing extraordinary, but that’s not surprising for a player of his size. He won’t knock too many guys backward, but he does show a useful ability to redirect his man to prevent him from reaching the ballcarrier.

Ahmarean Brown

Height/Weight: 5-10 / 165

Hometown: Tampa, FL (Jefferson HS)

The smallest receiver in the 2019 class, Brown had offers from a slew of Power 5 conference schools but chose Tech, where he’ll have a good shot to make an impact right away.

Speed is the name of Brown’s game. He has good burst off the line of scrimmage and runs almost effortlessly, and he can torch a defensive back who isn’t prepared to run with him on a go route. He gets the ball in space frequently, both on short passing routes and on reverses, and he shows a knack for capitalizing on it and for slipping past defenders attempting to make open-field tackles. Brown also makes up for his lack of size by tracking the ball well in the air, positioning himself well to snag underthrown passes.

The main concern in his film is the lack of route variety, which is out of his control. Virtually all of his receiving highlights are either vertical routes, short curls, or screen passes. Brown projects as a slot receiver based on his size and skillset, and it would be useful to see him run slants, out routes, or anything else that involves cuts and timing. (For what it’s worth, he does seem to have good chemistry with his quarterback at Jefferson, as several of his touchdowns on vertical routes benefit from passes that hit him perfectly in stride.)

Another concern is the common one for receiver prospects: limited blocking film. That said, his reel does include a play where he screens a defensive back effectively to spring a big play by they running back.

Nazir Burnett

Height/Weight: 6-1 / 175

Hometown: Harrisburg, PA (Bishop McDevitt HS)

Burnett was one of three players in the class who wasn’t from Georgia or one of its neighboring states. According to 247Sports, he had an offer from Temple, so it’s likely that Collins was targeting him previously and chose to extend an offer to a player who has the talent to be a solid ACC player.

On film, Burnett just looks like a fun prospect. His straight-line speed is about as good as that of Norris or Brown; if a secondary isn’t paying attention when he’s running a go route, he’s past them in a flash. He’s also good at tracking the ball in the air, putting himself in position to make a catch even when the throw is off target or underthrown. He does need to work a bit on going after the ball with his hands—he often seems content to let the ball come to his chest even when he’s in traffic, which can be dangerous against better secondaries. Still, he shows an ability to reach out and snag it on a few occasions, so it’s a tendency he can develop through practice.

The most intriguing element of his game is the wide variety of routes that he’s able to run. Like any wide receiver prospect’s highlight reel, Burnett’s film features a bunch of touchdowns on go routes, but he also mixes in outs, posts, curls, and corner routes. Notably, his team’s go-to play in the end zone was to target him on a zig/whip route, a challenging route where he steps inside as if running a slant before turning and cutting to the sideline. He’s a crisp route runner, and the fact that he’s working with a fairly advanced route tree in high school bodes well for his ability to learn the offense quickly at the college level.

There are only a few blocking highlights, but Burnett shows deceptive strength for his size. He’s likely to add a bit more weight as time goes on, and that should help him take on defensive backs in the run game.

Marquez Ezzard

Height/Weight: 6-2 / 215

Hometown: Stockbridge, GA (Stockbridge HS)

Previous School: Miami (FL)

Along with the crop of freshmen, Tech will welcome a transfer from a Coastal Division foe in Ezzard, a Georgia native who spent his first collegiate season at Miami and decided to transfer after Mark Richt retired. Ezzard had a quiet rookie year, appearing in just three games and recording two catches for 24 yards. Since he didn’t have too many plays of note last season, it’s easier to just review his senior film from high school.

Ezzard fits the Paul Johnson receiver mold perfectly: he’s a physical receiver who uses his size to win jump balls and does a great job of extending his hands to make the catch when he’s in traffic. In a class full of smaller and faster receivers, Ezzard’s size and strength should be valuable. That said, he’s a good athlete for his size too, with enough speed to take it to the house if he gets a little space.

Route running is an area where he’ll likely have some growing to do. His high school route tree was fairly simple, if his film is any indication—the first four minutes are him winning jump balls on go routes, and we don’t see anything beyond slants, curls, and the occasional screen pass. He’ll need to learn to run more advanced routes, which is a common enough issue for young receivers. The good news is that he can build on what he learned during his year at Miami.

Since he’s transferring from one FBS school to another, Ezzard will need a waiver to play this fall, and it’s not clear how good his chances are of getting said waiver. Were he cleared to play, he could count 2018 as his redshirt season since he only appeared in three games, and he would thus have four seasons to play for Tech. That said, it’s probably safest to assume he will sit out the upcoming season, in which case he would have three years to play starting in 2020.

Conclusion

It’s way too early to have a good read on which of these guys will play much this fall, but given that Tech has only two receivers with any meaningful experience, there’s almost no doubt that at least a couple of the newcomers will factor into the rotation in Collins’ first season. All of them are capable of playing right away.

Brown would seem to have a leg up for this fall. He was the only receiver to enroll early, so the combination of participating in spring practice and projecting as a slot receiver—a huge area of need—should give him a boost as he tries to crack the lineup as a true freshman. Norris and Burnett bring excellent straight-line speed with some added perks (top-notch agility for Norris, good route-running ability for Burnett). At least one of them should get on the field this fall, if not both, and they’re versatile enough to line up on the outside or in the slot depending on the team’s needs.

Owens is a bit more of a project and is more likely to redshirt as he adds muscle to his frame, but it would not be a shocker if he found his way into the lineup. Ezzard would have an immediate impact if he gains eligibility for the upcoming season, but it’s more likely that he’ll make his debut in 2020. Both of them will bring a combination of size and speed that should be valuable in the years ahead.