The only departures from this unit weren't even full-time players at their respective spots. B-back David Sims graduated, and was a part-time returner of kickoffs, although he usually would act only as a blocker and defer the kicks to whoever was beside him as a returner. The other departure is from DB Jemea Thomas, who in the past acted as something of an emergency punt returner in case of injuries or poor play -- though not the full-time guy, Thomas's reliability was comforting in high-pressure situations.
There's actually a lot of potential from the freshmen when it comes to returning kicks and punts. First and foremost, Myles Autry was a highly dangerous returner in high school for both kicks and punts. His speed, acceleration, and juking abilities are incredible and a major weapon in the return game. In addition, Qua Searcy returned kicks in high school, aided majorly by his superior athleticism. There's a chance he returns kicks or punts as well, even though it may not be right away.
Projected Depth Chart
|Postion||First String||Second String|
Jamal Golden (R-Jr)
Lynn Griffin (R-So)
|Myles Autry (Fr)
Dennis Andrews (R-So)
|Punt Returns||Jamal Golden (R-Jr)||
DeAndre Smelter (Sr)
Myles Autry (Fr)
Of all the positions on the roster, this is probably the one that Yellow Jacket fans are least worried about. Returning from injury this year is the highly dynamic and dangerous return man Jamal Golden, who missed a majority of last season after suffering a shoulder injury against North Carolina. You'll remember that it was Golden who, in 2012, returned a kickoff for a touchdown against BYU, almost 14 years to the day since the last time a Georgia Tech player accomplished that feat. (For good measure, he ran back another kick for a touchdown to open the second half of the North Carolina game two weeks later, which Georgia Tech won 68-50. Yes, it was actually a football game.) Golden was all over preseason watch lists and Preseason All-ACC teams in 2013 as a returner, before being left off all of them entirely this year. Apparently the media has a short memory.
Golden should be joined on kickoffs by Lynn Griffin, who had a lot of success returning kicks last year (26.5 yards per return) before taking a nasty hit against Clemson that would limit his playing time for the rest of the season. I also think there's a good chance that we see Myles Autry return kickoffs in some capacity this season as a true freshman. Whether or not he would be a full-time returner or not is unclear, but his dynamic playmaking ability is an awful lot of talent to leave on the bench, even as a true freshman. Dennis Andrews could be another guy who gets a chance to return kicks at times after he returned 5 kickoffs for an average of 27.2 yards last year.
On punt returns, Golden will likely be backed up by DeAndre Smelter, who did a nice job filling in last year after Golden went out with his injury. Smelter is a big, sturdy guy with enough athleticism to be a solid returner. Last year he returned 11 punts for an average of 11.27 yards. (If you take out his return that resulted in a loss of three yards against Alabama A&M, his average jumps up to 12.7 yards per return.) Similar to kick returns, there's a chance that we see Myles Autry return punts at some point this season, perhaps early on in a game that's not particularly close. I wouldn't expect him to overtake Golden to be the starter by any means, but there could be spots where he's used for whatever reason.
As stated earlier, this is the least of any Tech fan's concerns right now. It's a really solid unit with a lot of promise and a lot of bona fide playmakers included. Injuries are really the only thing that would keep this unit from being one of the best in the ACC, if not the single best. The pieces are there, and now it's all about making sure they stay in place.
What are your expectations for this unit? If Golden stays healthy, does he get national recognition as a returner? Will there be any games that are won or lost with this unit?