ATLANTA — With Geoff Collins entering his third football season in charge at Georgia Tech, words and concepts like rebuilding and reshaping may no longer be reasonable.
The Yellow Jackets have been dreadful in the first two seasons since option offense aficionado Paul Johnson retired as head coach, going 3-9 in 2019 and 3-7 last year. It being 2021, Collins and the program's fans are looking for things to start turning around.
As with so many teams, youth should no longer be a concern with the NCAA last year granting an extra year of eligibility to every player due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yes, the Jackets have 25 true freshmen on scholarship. They also have several seniors taking a sixth season of on-field eligibility and 12 new players via transfer, several of them with college degrees.
The good news is their best two players — quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jamhyr Gibbs, the former Dalton High School standout — are back after solid (borderline spectacular at times) but injury-speckled freshman seasons. Another plus is that several players who transferred in boast starting experience at other big programs.
The bad news is Tech returns several players from a team that last season was among the nation's most penalized and fruitless in the kicking game, as well as substandard in almost all categories that exist.
But they seem happy right now.
"I thought when I came that I was going to get one opportunity to play here, and I got through with that season and I realized that I love this place so much that I wanted to stay," said offensive lineman Ryan Johnson, who figures to start again after transferring from Tennessee before last season.
That love might only grow with some success, and one way the Jackets can step closer to that is by getting out of their own way.
Tech's average of 8.9 penalties per game last year ranked 121st in the country, and it was much worse on the road at 11.8. Their penalties-per-snap also ranked among the worst, and 41 of 89 penalties were before the ball was snapped.
Special teams also must improve after last season's 3-for-8 showing on field-goal attempts, one of the least productive ratios in the history of modern college football. The Jackets hope Brent Cimaglia — another graduate transfer from Tennessee — can change that after making 46 of 62 field-goal tries in his four seasons with the Volunteers.
There is also a search to replace punter Percy Harvin, who was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventh round of this year's NFL draft, but the Jackets know Gibbs is adept as a return man.
"The culture is set," Collins said. "Now is the time to focus in on all the details that will take us to the next step in the development of our program."
Gibbs earned honorable mention on the All-Atlantic Coast Conference team despite missing three-plus games because of injury, and the Jackets appear to have some depth at running back with Jordan Mason and Jamious Griffin still on board and having shown promise in the past. Coupled with the dual threat of Sims at quarterback — his three ACC player of the week honors last season were more for rushing for 492 yards and six touchdowns than for modest passing statistics — a ground-oriented attack might not be such a bad plan despite those who grew tired of that mode of offense under Collins' predecessor.
Either way, the offensive line will be bigger than in recent years, averaging well above 300 pounds for the first time in a long time. Left tackle candidate Devin Cochran, a Vanderbilt graduate transfer, weighed 317 pounds at last count and is 6-foot-7.
The defensive line is bigger, too, with Old Dominion transfer Keion White looking to make a difference as an end, and the team looks good at safety, where Tariq Carpenter and Juanyeh Thomas roam as NFL-caliber players. The rest of the secondary is fluid with cornerbacks Tre Swilling, Zamari Walton, Kenyatta Walker and even Myles Sims, a Michigan transfer from a couple years ago. Also look for nickelback Wesley Walker to contribute.
The Jackets will need everything they can get against what is widely considered one of the toughest schedules in the country.
It may start with back-to-back games against Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference and Atlanta-area program Kennesaw State of the Football Championship Subdivision, but the Sept. 18 ACC opener is against six-time reigning league champion Clemson, a College Football Playoff regular. There's also a November trip to Notre Dame that will be followed by a regular-season finale against Southeastern Conference neighbor Georgia.
The Bulldogs have won three in a row, nine of the past 11, and 16 of the past 19 against the Jackets.