We continue our series today with a look at an individual who Paul Johnson coached alongside during his tenure at Hawai'i, and who has been on Georgia Tech's staff for Johnson's entire tenure.
History & Time at Georgia Tech
A native of Los Angeles, Preston graduated from Hawai'i in 1982 after playing for the Rainbow Warriors in 1978-1979. He's been coaching ever since, as a graduate assistant at his alma mater before moving to Washington and Southern Illinois from 1983-1986. He then returned to Hawai'i and coached defensive backs from 1987-1993, on the same coaching staff as then-OC Paul Johnson. From 1994-2007, Preston coached offensive positions during stops at Washington State, UNLV, Stanford (twice), Notre Dame, and New Mexico.
Preston was brought in by Coach Johnson in 2008 to coach wide receivers on his inaugural staff at Georgia Tech, and has been in that position ever since. He and offensive line coach Mike Sewak are the only remaining members of Georgia Tech's 2008 coaching staff, not counting then-graduate assistant Lamar Owens.
Notable Players Coached: WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Stephen Hill, WR Kevin Cone, WR Tyler Melton, WR Darren Waller, WR DeAndre Smelter, WR Ricky Jeune
|Will Adams (Auburn)
|Jordan Jenkins (georgia)
|Brandon Facyson (Virginia Tech)
|Jeremi Hall (South Florida)
|Jumichael Ramos (N.C. State)
|Brandon Singleton (Cal)
|Luke Elder (UNC)
Primarily a recruiter of metro Atlanta, Preston's record in recruiting isn't particularly impressive from a quantity standpoint, although several of the players that he's signed in his tenure have been high-impact, talented players. Several of his recruits were multi-year starters, and two are currently in the NFL.
At the same time, there is also a track record of Preston's recruits being committed to Georgia Tech and then flipping to go elsewhere, including Will Adams, Jeremi Hall, and Brandon Singleton. Not only that, but there are also some high-priority players who were local targets that Preston wasn't able to rope in -- notably, Brandon Facyson (Greater Atlanta Christian) and Jumichael Ramos (Lovejoy). Further adding to that narrative is his former recruit (and a former member of his position group) Jeff Greene, who transferred to Ohio State following the 2012 season.
The other concern with regards to Preston's recruiting is the lack of quantity. Since he really had a chance to start recruiting for Georgia Tech, Preston has averaged less than 2 commitments per year from 2009-2015. Part of that is attributed to the concerns pointed out above, while part of it could just be how his area has fit in with Georgia Tech's large-scale recruiting plan. Still, though -- 12 signees in 7 years isn't exactly a dazzling mark.
Preston has had his ups and downs as a recruiter. There can be no doubt that he's brought in some important and impactful players for Georgia Tech, but his record is far from spotless when it comes to acquiring and retaining commitments.
Having just completed his eighth year of coaching wide receivers at Georgia Tech, Preston has put together a reasonably strong record of player development. Even early on, his impact was seen -- from 2007 to 2008, Demaryius Thomas saw his receptions, yards, and yards per catch all increase, even while the offense was transitioning from a more balanced scheme to a run-heavy scheme. In his two years under Coach Johnson, Thomas led the Jackets in receptions and yards by a wide margin, with a combined 85 catches for 1,781 yards and 11 touchdowns. You saw plenty of development from Thomas over that time, both as a blocker and as a weapon in the passing game. One of his signature moves became the stiff-arm against smaller cornerbacks, particularly useful against the excessive one-on-one coverage that he faced. Thomas became a first-round NFL Draft pick following the 2009 season.
The departure of Thomas left a major gap in Georgia Tech's receiving corps, in a few ways. One of them was from a pass-catching talent standpoint, where Stephen Hill (heir to Thomas's pass-catching throne) showed his hands to be very unreliable. Hill finished 2010 as the team's leader in catches, although he only recorded 15 on the year. (The team's 64 pass completions remain the low-water mark of the Paul Johnson era.) Hill improved in 2011, managing a team-leading 28 catches for a whopping 820 yards (nearly 30 yards per catch) and 5 touchdowns. While his hands remained unreliable, they were improved over 2010 and Hill's athleticism was frequently on display throughout the season. The 2011 campaign also saw the emergence of Tyler Melton as a secondary wide receiver target for Tevin Washington, as his more-reliable hands resulted in 17 receptions for 263 yards to complement Hill's numbers.
Hill's departure for the NFL and Melton's graduation following the 2011 season brought in another new crop of Georgia Tech receivers, this time featuring Jeff Greene and Darren Waller. In an unusual development for the Johnson era, Greene was the primary wide receiver in 2012, but did not lead the team in yards. Instead, he tied with A-Back Orwin Smith for the team lead with 18 receptions each, and Smith led the team with 288 yards to Greene's 284. Greene elected to transfer to Ohio State following the season (for reasons that can't be blamed on Preston) and has caught only 2 passes since.
Waller, on the other hand, saw his workload increase after Greene's departure, going from only 8 catches in 2012 to 17 catches in 2013, all the way to 26 catches in 2014. Waller was similar to Hill early on with very impressive size and athleticism but very unreliable hands, with an added difficulty when it came to using his big 6'6" frame. By the time that he graduated, Waller had developed into a more reliable, physical receiver with enough promise that he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.
In his final two seasons, Waller played more of a complementary role to DeAndre Smelter, who spent his first two seasons at Georgia Tech playing baseball. Smelter came in and made an immediate impact on the field, using superior athleticism and ball skills to manhandle smaller defensive backs. He refined his skills further from 2013 to 2014, going from being a reliable target (21 catches for 345 yards and 4 TD's) to being an explosive game-changer (35 catches for 715 yards and 7 TD's) who was drafted in the 4th round by the San Francisco 49ers -- even while rehabbing a torn ACL.
Moving forward, it's on Preston to continue developing the next crop of wide receivers. The 2015 seasons saw the focus shift to sophomore Ricky Jeune, following the graduations of Smelter and Waller, and the midseason departure of Micheal Summers. Jeune is the leader of a young group that includes late-season starter Brad Stewart, as well as 2015 redshirts Harland Howell II and Christian Philpott. For Jeune and Stewart, you saw some improvement through the 2015 season, but there's more work to be done -- far too often, protection breaks down and quarterbacks start scrambling without receivers breaking off routes and coming back to help out. Their perimeter blocking wasn't bad, but could also use some work moving forward.
Preston's players haven't always developed overnight, but there can be no doubt that his players are considerably better when they leave than they arrive.
All things considered, it would be hard for me to say that Buzz Preston isn't an asset to this staff. His recruiting record, while spotty at times, has generally been decent at bringing in committed, impactful players. An improved ability to close on some high-priority recruits would have potentially made a big difference to the team over the last several years, but Preston has generally pulled his weight with regards to recruiting. More importantly, a look at his track record with developing wide receivers is very clear -- both on the stat sheets, as well as with the simple eye test. Plain and simple: his players are noticeably better when they leave than when they arrive, and he deserves a ton of credit for that. Hopefully that translates to the most recent crop of wide receivers at Georgia Tech.
If this staff is going to be without Buzz Preston sometime in the near future, it should be by his choice. It would be hard for Coach Johnson to justify his firing considering his track record at Georgia Tech, both long-term and recently.