Coming off of a 9-4 campaign in 2016 that saw them finish by winning 6 of their final 7 games, the Yellow Jackets are looking to maintain that momentum and build on it heading into 2017. Several of the pieces are in place to do so, as Georgia Tech ranks in the top-30 nationally in returning production. That said, there are some key contributors from 2016 who have completed their careers on the Flats, and will need to be replaced. With spring practice beginning on Monday, the Yellow Jackets’ coaching staff will spend a majority of their time over the next few weeks focusing on finding those players ready to step up and make an impact on the team this fall. Let’s take a look at some of the key position battles they’ll be focusing on.
The big, obvious position battle that will be the public’s focus this spring is the race to replace graduated starting QB Justin Thomas after an illustrious three-year tenure as the team’s starter under center. The top candidate to replace him is rising redshirt junior Matthew Jordan, an Alabama native who’s been the team’s primary backup over the last two years. After moving from QB to A-Back in fall camp prior to the 2015 season, he switched back when then-backup Tim Byerly went down with a season-ending injury and has functioned as the team’s short-yardage quarterback ever since. Over the last two years, Jordan has 102 carries for 404 yards and 8 touchdowns. By far his career highlight so far has been a 32-carry, 121-yard 2-touchdown effort in a win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, in a game where Thomas was injured and Jordan was the team’s starter. Listed at 6’2” and 208 pounds, Jordan is a significantly larger body than Thomas and should be more comfortable with running between the tackles than his predecessor. It’s worth noting that, while passing isn’t Jordan’s strong suit, his ability to pass shouldn’t significantly hold back his effectiveness at running the offense.
Competing with Jordan will be fellow rising junior TaQuon Marshall, a fellow former A-Back himself. After playing in 9 games as an A-Back in 2015, Marshall moved to quarterback in 2016, where he played late in wins over Mercer and Vanderbilt. Marshall is significantly smaller than Jordan, with a 5’10” and 185-pound listing that would make him only marginally larger than Thomas. As such he plays a similar style to Thomas, relying on his speed and agility on the outside when carrying the ball. With only one pass attempt so far in college, it’s hard to say how Marshall stacks up as a passer, though it’s worth noting that his senior year highlights don’t include any instances of him passing the ball. If Marshall doesn’t win the starting job and there’s another strong contender for backup, my guess is that he’ll move back to A-Back so that he’s able to get onto the field.
Also competing will be rising redshirt freshmen Jay Jones and Lucas Johnson. After entering school last fall and spending the year redshirting, both will be in the running this spring. Another Alabama native, Jones might be the most athletic of the competitors that would have the most big-play potential. Listed at 6’0” and 175 pounds, Jones compares best size-wise with Tevin Washington, though Washington had more weight on his frame by the end of his career. On the other hand, listed at 6’3” and 200 pounds, the San Diego-native Johnson is one of Paul Johnson’s largest-ever quarterbacks at Georgia Tech. Johnson is probably the best passer of the competitors, showing off impressive passing skills in high school that had several Yellow Jacket fans drooling. He brings plenty of athleticism and mobility to the table too, giving him potential to be the most complete quarterback among the competitors.
It should be noted here, too, that true freshman QB Tobias Oliver will be enrolling in school this summer and joining the quarterbacks in fall camp, although I don’t expect him to factor in to this year’s QB competition.
Projection: My guess is that Jordan emerges as the starter, and that Johnson serves as his backup. As a result, I’m guessing that TaQuon Marshall is moved back to A-Back to ensure that he still has a chance to make an impact.
Following the graduation of longtime defensive line contributors Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon, the Jackets need to find a second starter on the interior defensive line to join presumed starter Kyle Cerge-Henderson. Perhaps the most well-equipped to fill the role that Gamble played is rising redshirt junior Desmond Branch, who shows similar flexibility to Gamble in his ability to play the interior line spots, or to slide out to defensive end as necessary. Unfortunately he’s only listed at a mere 270 pounds, meaning he’ll need to add some weight to hold up as an every-down defensive tackle, and it’s possible that he’s primarily used as a defensive tackle in passing situations.
Rising sophomore Brentavious Glanton is another player who could step up and take on a starting role along with classmate Cerge-Henderson. Glanton played in 6 games last year. However, he’s listed at 276 pounds and will need to add weight, similar to Branch.
Rising sophomore Brandon Adams was a fan favorite in 2016, playing in 9 games and making a major impact on defense with his huge 6’2”, 350-pound frame. Though his stats don’t reflect his impact, Adams was highly effective in short-yardage situations. His ability to play extended periods was his major limitation, and developing his endurance will be the key to him making a larger impact moving forward.
Redshirt freshman Chris Martin will also be in the mix here after sitting out 2016, and will be joined this summer by incoming freshman Antwan Owens.
Projection: Barring one of them developing into an every-down player, my guess is that the spot becomes a situational rotation of Branch, Glanton, and Adams. Glanton makes sense on standard downs, Branch makes the most sense in pass-rushing situations, and Adams makes sense in short-yardage situations.
After three years as a starter and one of Georgia Tech’s best defensive players, P.J. Davis graduated and vacated his starting SLB spot. One of the top candidates to fill that role is rising senior Terrell Lewis, who’s played in 36 games and made 28 tackles over the last three years between defense and special teams. Lewis’s athleticism and familiarity with Ted Roof’s system should make him a leading candidate for the starting job this fall.
Rising junior Vic Alexander is another primary candidate, after recording 24 tackles and participating in all 25 games over the last two seasons. His athleticism and range make him a strong fit for the role that Davis vacated, though he’ll need to continue developing his understanding and execution of Roof’s scheme to avoid being caught out of position.
Rising redshirt junior Tre’ Jackson is another experienced candidate after playing in 24 games between 2015 and 2016. However, at 5’10” and 225 pounds, and without singificant range, Jackson probably fits better as a MLB, though that starting spot is currently occupied by Brant Mitchell.
Rising redshirt sophomore Tyler Cooksey could also be a potential player in this race, now that he’s healthy after fighting off injuries over the first couple of years of his career on the Flats. Cooksey played in 4 games in 2016, including the team’s final three contests against Virginia, georgia, and Kentucky. Ultimately, it’s hard to project Cooksey’s role heading into year three of his career at Georgia Tech.
Though the battle this spring will be among the players listed above, the Jackets will add true freshmen Bruce Jordan-Swilling and Jaquan Henderson to the mix when they enroll later this summer, potentially with others thrown in as well.
Projection: This battle seems most likely to be between Terrell Lewis and Vic Alexander, but will depend on who develops more over the course of the spring. I’ll guess the spot is won this spring by the more experienced Lewis. (Don’t rule out one of the incoming freshmen from eventually ending up with the starting spot, either.)
With school back in session following spring break, spring practice begins on Monday afternoon and will culminate at the Yellow Jackets’ Spring Game on the evening of Friday, April 21. We’ll keep you updated with any developments over the next few weeks.