AB: Roddy Jones, Embry Peeples, Marcus Wright, Jamal Paige
BB: Jonathan Dwyer, Quincy Kelly, Richard Watson, Preston Lyons, Daniel Drummond
AB: Lucas Cox, Anthony Allen, Jemea Thomas, Orwin Smith
Aside from Greg Smith's decision to graduate then transfer and not play his final season at Georgia Tech, there really aren't any losses at the running back positions to speak of. For the third year in a row, Greg chipped in with two touchdowns on the season. In 2006 and 2007 he did it as a receiver – totalling 701 yards on 44 receptions in those two seasons. He was a starting receiver in seven of the games in 2007 but with Coach Paul Johnson's new offense, the team found itself short at the new a-back position and Greg was in for a position change. Greg sacrificed some playing time by moving to a-back, but he did play in the first ten games of the season. A broken collarbone slowed Greg at the beginning of the season but he overcame the injury. For the last part of the season he found himself in the coaches' doghouse. Greg finished his last season with 13 carries for 98 yards (7.5 YPC) and 2 receptions for 37 yards.
It has been speculated that Greg will move on – possibly to a smaller school in Tennessee – where he can give wide receiver one more shot to see if he can garner some interest from NFL scouts. We wish him well.
The Yellow Jacket made due just fine at running backs this season. But a lack of injuries covered up depth issues that lingered throughout the season. In order to even have a 2-deep for every game, the coaches had to burn redshirts for two true freshman backs – Wright and Peeples. And the best illustration of the good fortune GT had in respect to injuries is that the Yellow Jackets were able to start the same players at all three back positions for every game of the year. Dwyer was the b-back and Jones and Cox held down the job at a-back all season.
What this all means is that fortune smiled on Tech's backs in 2008 but they had better be prepared to go a little deeper in 2009 just in case. Yellow Jacket fans have seen seasons where nearly the entire roster of backs has gone down at times during a season. It was a smart move by coaches to bring in a player in this class for every back position. Three was the right target.
Spring Practice Report:
What's a good place to start? How about at b-back and the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in 2008? Jonathan Dwyer was probably a little under-the-radar nationally to begin the season but it didn't take long before people could see that he having a breakout season. He actually was not bad at all as the backup to Tashard Choice in 2007. In '07 he chipped in nine touchdowns on 82 rushes for 436 yards (5.3 YPC). That's a touchdown every nine times he touched the ball. Last season he showed just what a player is capable of doing as the feature b-back in Coach Johnson's offense. Though he had only 31% of the carries for the team, there were many more big plays this season and many yards. The one highlight for the season that will stick with most fans was his 60-yard touchdown run (and subsequent 2-pt conversion) against Georgia on the first play of the second half (just after the broadcast threw up a graphic on the screen which stated "Where's the Sting"), which ignited a huge GT streak-breaking comeback win over the dark side.
It is always worth another look:
From Youtube: "Jon Dwyer - 60 yd TD - 2 Pt"
Georgia Tech's rushing game is becoming a dynasty in the ACC. Dwyer's league leading rushing performance (season stats: 200 rushes for 1,419 yards and 12 TDs; 8 receptions for 209 yards and 1 TD) is on top of a couple of league leading efforts by Tashard Choice prior to Dwyer taking over. I suspect Dwyer will be the favorite to repeat that performance in 2009 and he's about the easiest bet in the country to retain his starting spot. So, no spring drama is expected at the top line of the depth chart at b-back.
The a-back position returns both starters from last season but there may actually be some drama this spring in terms of the guys fighting to keep those spots. First though let's look at the incumbents. Tech fans were very anxious this time last year to see just how this offense, and particular the new running back positions, would look. A common question was, "What does a prototypical b-back and a-back look like?" Dwyer answered half of that question and Roddy Jones answered the other half of it. They seem to be the perfect compliments to each other. Coaches mentioned how they wanted a-backs to be able to hit a "homerun" anytime he touched the ball and Roddy delivered. By the end of the year, he struck fear in opposing teams that could no longer try and key just on Dwyer to slow Tech down. Jones averaged a whopping 8.5 yards per carry on 81 attempts (723 yards) and contributed four touchdowns. He also had 8 receptions for 155 yards and another touchdown. Despite budding talent on the roster, Jones also seems a safe bet to be in the same position throughout spring.
When picturing the prototype for a-back, what fans did not picture was someone who looked like Lucas Cox. Prior to starting all 13 games last season, many looked at Cox as the guy who received a scholarship after transferring from Connecticut because his brother was a star on the team. Coach Chan Gailey promised him a scholarship in 2008 and Coach Johnson followed through and made good on that promise. The fact is - he earned every bit of that scholarship. But I don't think most people envisioned a 6'0", 240-pound bull-in-a-china-shop back as an a-back. The fact is, Cox is probably more of a b-back but as long as Dwyer was healthy, that spot was filled. The coaches, as they always promise to do, found a way to get the best players on the field. It may not be ideal but Lucas was as steady as they came last year. He also had a high 7.7 YPC on 26 carries (205 yards) and ran in three touchdowns. He caught 3 passes on the year for 57 yards. His performance would seem to indicate he was safe to keep his spot for next season, but as Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast my friend."
One of the biggest wild cards on the entire team next season and this spring is transfer running back Anthony Allen. Allen, formerly a standout for Louisville, was a starter and leading rusher for the Cardinals and he holds the Louisville single-game rushing record with 275 yards against Middle Tennessee on September 6th, 2007. He could end up like Choice being one of the most significant transfers in the history of GT. There are certainly some huge expectations being placed on Allen. His size, speed and experience will allow coaches to use him at either back position. So, the coaches can try out a number of different scenarios in spring to see how to get the best three guys on the field at the same time. He also provides a great insurance policy in case of injury to Dwyer or in 2010 he could possibly take over the b-back position should Dwyer move on to the NFL. In the meantime, there will be at least four backs who are likely deserving of starting spots. The addition of Allen to this group will be one of the most anticipated stories of the coming spring practices. There is good reason to be excited.
What makes this group of backs even more interesting is that the four guys with proven experience are followed by a handful of younger guys just getting their feet wet in college football but with plenty of upside. Of the three backs in last year's class, only Richard Watson was not forced into some game action in 2008. Wright and Peeples took part in seven and eight games respectively last season but they only scratched the surface on what they'll be able to contribute long-term.
Embry Peeples got the first look of the freshmen backs in 2008. He lost his redshirt in game one. In the Mississippi State game, he led off the route with a 7-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. That was his only TD of the season and the 6-carry, 56-yard performance was his high watermark for the season. He hurt his ankle in the Duke game and missed the next five games. He had 11 carries before the injury and only 3 more for the rest of the season. So, he was either still slowed by the ankle or the coaches were more comfortable with other players at a crucial point in the schedule. In either case, they thought enough of him early on in the season, so there's no reason to think he won't be right there in the mix on the depth chart again in 2009. The early game experience should serve him well in off-season preparations as he'll have a good feel for the speed of the game.
Marcus Wright arrived on campus with the most hype of the backs in his class. He put up some gaudy numbers as a high school senior in Texas, including 45 touchdowns. He was also said to be one of the fastest players in the state. What was glaring though when he arrived on campus was his diminutive stature. He was tiny looking compared to guys on the roster and it seemed to show in his initial confidence level. He had the dropsies in early practices and was no match for hard-charging defenders trying to take down the quarterback. It looked like a redshirt season was needed and pretty much assured of happening. But then Peeples had the ankle injury and Wright was brought in to play in game six versus Gardner Webb. He carried the ball three times for eight yards and then sat the next game against Clemson. Though he blocking was getting better, he wasn't really needed much at a-back for the time being. By game eight (Virginia) though he supplanted Dwyer as the main kick returner opposite Roddy Jones. From that point on he returned nine kicks for a total of 200 yards. He caught a 47-yard pass in the LSU game and was spotted on film in several late games making some devastating blocks in relief duty as a back. As with Peeples, getting an early feel for the game should serve Wright well. He seems to have a future as a return guy but it's still too early to tell what he's going to contribute as a back. He came a long way in a short time in year one. Spring will be a good test for Marcus as he'll get plenty of looks.
The other back from the 2008 class is b-back Richard Watson. Unlike the a-back position, there was no urgent need to find players to fill out the depth chart at b-back. Tech coaches had the luxury of being able to redshirt Watson. Richard is a big, bruising back who'll be a better fit as a b-back than an a-back. He's a down-hill runner who racked up almost 3,700 yards in his final two seasons in high school. With Dwyer, Allen and Cox in the mix as big backs, it will be interesting to see this spring what kind of niche Watson can carve out early on in his career. It's possible he could come in for short yardage situations in an all big back package. At the least, he'll provide the coaches more depth and more options to work with. Coach Johnson must stay up late at nights thinking of the different combinations.
Quincy Kelly is another who could see action at the b-back position – in fact, he'll be again listed as the backup as Tech heads into spring. Being the backup for Dwyer though, he saw about as much work as the Maytag repairman. Kelly, who started his career at Tech as a linebacker, played sparingly last season also because he was diagnosed with a non-football medical condition. The condition will always be a concern for Kelly but he does plan to be back and in the mix this spring. He's a solidly built, hard-running back who specializes in short yardage situations and blocking. Last season he chipped in 14 carries for 42 yards (3.0 YPC).
Finally, rounding out the spring depth chart at running back is a collection of walk-ons with varying chances of getting serious looks in practice. Jamal Paige is an interesting player. He came in last year as a preferred walk-on, and as we've seen, the coaches brought in a very solid group in that class. Paige likewise held his own in practice and stood out on occasion. I could easily see him getting reps at practice and continuing to work his way up the depth chart.
Preston Lyons is a big back and transfer from Colgate. He sat out last year and will try and find a role on the team in 2009. Lance Walls actually saw a little game action last season. He had three carries for nine yards. Like Lyons, Walls is a big back and a transfer. He came to Tech via Brigham Young. Finally, Jim Henry, a former walk-on quarterback, is in line to get a look at a-back. It will be interesting to see what he brings to the table at that position this spring.
Who GT signed:
Home Town (High School): Fitzgerald, GA (Fitzgerald High School)
Other offers included: Purdue, Troy, Vanderbilt
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Charles Kelly
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 70 (S)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Jemea is moderately rated by Scout.com but you get the feeling he was being grossly undersold. The more reports came in on him, the more you could see that coaches who had seen him play had wished they had gotten involved earlier. Tech coaches also knew they had a steal when they first brought him in. There seemed to be efforts to kind of keep his visit quiet and for good reason. Teams came heavier after him following his announcement to GT but he held firm throughout the process.
I also get the sense that Thomas is a true team player. We know now that the offense coaches, for now, have won out and will get him at a-back in fall, but that wasn't the case at the time he committed. Even a month into his time as a GT commit, he told Dale McDuffie, "I plan on being a cornerback or there is a possibility I can play safety. Cornerback is the position I'll most likely end up playing and that is fine by me. I just want to contribute and be a part of the team." On signing day coaches talked about how he never made any big deal about where he played. He was always happy to be a Yellow Jacket and will take his orders and play wherever he's needed most.
The coaches also love Jemea's speed – we're told he was the fastest recruit in this class and analysts love his physical style of play in spite of his size. Thomas could end up as a Roddy Jones-type of a-back, but if things don't work out there, he could have a future as a defensive back. His break-away ability could make him a possibility as a kick returner as well. His videos remind me of Morgan Burnett's high school clips so it's easy to see why coaches on both sides of the ball are interested in him.
Jemea was named Class AA Defensive Player of the Year by the AJC. On offense he rushed for 518 yards and seven touchdowns.
"An instinctive football player on both sides of the ball, Thomas plays running back, defensive back, and linebacker for his Fitzgerald teams. He is extremely physical as he attacks ball carriers and defenders with equal fervor. The only knock on Thomas is his height, but teams will take a chance on him, and worry about where to play him later. He is good enough in coverage and with the ball in his hands to play DB, RB, or WR."
"Thomas is tough South Georgia football player. He straps on the pads and immediately looks for someone to hit. Thomas is an athlete that could play running back or safety and he could do either well. I love his toughness, his attitude, and how he plays the game."
"Seems to be a "tad" bit small for the safety position, but to watch his film you will see a ball hawking playmaker. He really delivers a punch when he tackles."
Home Town (High School): Flowery Branch, GA (Flowery Branch High School)
Other offers included: Arkansas, Oklahoma State
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Jeff Monken
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 5 (FB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Daniel was an easy one to root for in recruiting this year. He was at nearly every Tech football event – practice, scrimmage, combine, camp – and that was before he even received his offer. He would hang out and bond with other Tech recruits while not knowing for certain he'd get an offer. I always had the sense that if and when he was offered, he'd accept right away – and that's what happened. I was there at the GT combine the day he was offered. He came out to the field after being in Coach Johnson's office getting and giving good news. "I just got offered and I decided to commit and I'm really, really excited about this," Drummond told me shortly after he pledged to become a Yellow Jacket.
Physically, it takes some guys years to reach their potential, but with Daniel he seems to be fairly mature in that respect. You just don't see many high school players his size and able to run as well as he does. He played as a man among boys in high school. It's scary to think about Eric Ciano building him up even more.
One of the questions the coaches tried to answer before offering Drummond was where to put him. He is as capable a linebacker as he is a running back. In the end though I think the feeling was to just go ahead and get him, slot him at a position (b-back) and reserve the right to change their minds later should he be more needed on defense. Jared Kimmel re-asked the position question to Daniel in mid-January and the answer was still the same. When asked if GT coaches were set to have him at b-back Drummond said, ""Yes, they are as of right now. It depends on if I grow. I'm a versatile player so I'll just do whatever happens." Like Jemea, Daniel also seems open to do what the coaches ask him to do in respect to position.
Drummond rushed for 1,102 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior and was named to first team all-state by AJC. He's also a state champion discus thrower.
With a plethora of options at b-back this season, GT may opt to redshirt Drummond. However, with his physical maturity being beyond that of a typical freshman, he could easily see the field early on special teams.
"Drummond is an outstanding athlete and he is a guy that could probably help Georgia Tech at many different positions. He has the size and skills to play fullback, linebacker, or possibly even defensive end. Drummond is a great down hill runner and he doesn't shy away from contact. He surprises many with his speed and that may be his biggest strength."
"A huge FB, Drummond also has the ability to run away from defenses. Rarely ever loses yards and is a load to tackle. Possesses a rare skill set and is the epitome of an every-down back. Athletic enough to take direct snaps and knows what to do in space. Will do very well at the next level."
Home Town (High School): Phenix City, AL (Central High School)
Other offers included: Alabama-Birmingham, Clemson, Vanderbilt, Southern Mississippi
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Charles Kelly
Scout.com Stars: **
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 112 (RB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Orwin is the big a-back coaches have been looking for. And I'm not kidding about him being put-together. Here's a shot of him from a camp at Auburn this past year.
Speaking of Auburn, it seemed early on like it was going to be an Auburn-GT battle for Orwin with Auburn holding a lead. He told Jared on August 13th, "Auburn was number one for me. The rumor was that they were running out of scholarships, so I was going to go ahead and commit to them. The next day I talked to my head coach and he explained to me that I didn't need to rush it. He said that (Auburn) had only run out of scholarships for that position, but that they weren't full at all taking 'athletes.' I could still go to Auburn as an athlete and play running back." At the time though, GT wasn't telling him what he wanted to hear in terms of his position. "Well I was talking to (Tech) back in the spring and my recruiting coach, Coach Kelly, told me I would make a great ACC safety. That just wasn't what I wanted to hear, you know...I was there for a junior day. (Tech) would be a great offer because I'd get more carries and more exposure (if I played running back)."
As we now know, both teams took different directions with Orwin. Auburn didn't come through with the offer and Tech coaches decided he was what they were looking for at a-back. Vandy and Southern Miss were the other schools in the end that wanted him to be their main RB recruit for 2009.
Orwin rushed for 1,252 yards on 214 carries and scored 18 touchdowns during his senior season and was named to the Mississippi-Alabama all-star team.
Smith will likely need a redshirt season to pick up the triple-o offense and to fine tune his techniques running the ball. Should the injury bug stay away again this season, there shouldn't be any urgency to play Orwin, physically though he'd probably be able to handle the load if asked to contribute in 2009.
"A smooth strider that doesn't over extend when he runs, Smith excels at slight feints and change of direction navigate in traffic. Not flashy, but he is effective in space. Needs to run behind his pads more in traffic to ensure he is falling forward. Not overly big, not overly fast, but uses his head and shoulders well to get defenders off balance."
"Orwin Smith is a very athletic running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield as well. He had a great performance in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game. Smith displayed a lot of power when running the ball and has really good vision. He needs to continue to work on speed and breaking tackles."
The one who got away:
I was extremely excited when Dennis committed to GT and very disappointed when told he didn't do the work in the classroom in order to fulfill his athletic promise for the Yellow Jackets. On film, he was outstanding. I think he would have been a star in this offense for GT. Instead, he takes his skills with him to New Mexico. I wouldn't be surprised if he was heard from again down the road. He could be a serious player. I don't think he'll be one who ends up elsewhere but we look back and can't remember what he did in college.
There were many names of players who looked very likely to end up at Tech this year as a running back but never panned out. Guys like Joel Kight (Mississippi), Ricky Johnson (Tulsa), and Wesley Tate (Vanderbilt) were being talked about very late in the game. All three, for various reasons, didn't end up with a scholarship offer – be it grades or coaches preferring to hold off on using that ship until the 2010 class that will be tighter on numbers.
Mike Gillislee (Florida) was looking at GT earlier in the recruiting season. He was said to be reconsidering Tech later on in the process but nothing ever came of it.
Dominique Allen (LSU) and Toney Williams (Tennessee) were the two big b-backs Tech coaches liked early on. Both initially committed to Tennessee but Allen later switched to LSU. Their going elsewhere also opened up the opportunity for Daniel Drummond to become a Yellow Jacket.
Tech coaches did what they needed to do at the back positions in terms of numbers. I like that they have brought in several different types of backs – guys with different skills and builds. It should make for a group that will be versatile in terms of which back position they play or they will have the chance to play on defense should it not work out at the back positions.
The one criticism would be that there were a number of misses at running back. With a year now to prove what a back is capable of doing in this offense, hopefully that will turn around and the top targets will be bought in on their role in this system. Dwyer and Jones were four-star backs and they are both getting it done in the triple-o. Early signs are that things may indeed be going well in that regard. The 2010 class is already off to a great start with the only commit being one of the top backs in the state of Georgia, Charles Perkins (love his profile picture!).
Thanks to Scott Kennedy, Andrew Bone, Dale McDuffie, Burke Hayes, Chad Simmons, Rusty Mansell, Jared Kimmel and Rod Mackenzie for contributions to this article!