Back Geoff Collins’ Georgia Tech Tale

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Geoff Collins’ Georgia Tech Tale

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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A specific vision has long followed Collins' rise through the coaching ranks; sky-scrapers to bright lights, it has come with quite the view.

"I was here when we were top ten in the country every year, we were playing for ACC Championships every year, New Year's Day bowl games, College GameDay was here. I remember what this place is supposed to be like."
~Geoff Collins

People are shaped by their experiences. Sometimes, fate returns the favor. In the case of new Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins, his current position has been a generation in the works. A metro Atlanta-native who graduated from Rockdale High School in Conyers, Collins, beginning his FBS coaching career on the Flats, has since honed his skills at the likes of Alabama, Central Florida, Mississippi State, Florida and, leading his first program, Temple. Wherever opportunity has taken Collins, passionate and sincere, his heart has stayed close to home. 

A specific vision has long followed Collins' rise through the coaching ranks; sky-scrapers to bright lights, it has come with quite the view.

Georgia Tech, in replacing the inimitable Paul Johnson, a three-time ACC Coach of the Year, conducted an extensive national search. Ultimately, the Yellow Jackets looked to their own past to go forward, tapping into a remarkable legacy that has long made Georgia Tech a program without many peers. Collins was a graduate assistant for the Yellow Jackets from 1999-2000, the tight ends coach in 2001 and was Georgia Tech's recruiting coordinator in 2006. In those four years, the Yellow Jackets won twice as many games as they lost and finished no worse than second in league play.

Before emerging as one of college football's premier defensive coordinators, becoming the first coach ever to be nominated for the prestigious Broyles Award at three different schools, and winning the most games of any coach through two seasons at Temple, Collins was part of contending teams at Georgia Tech. Those experiences were formative in more ways than one. 

"I was here when we were top ten in the country every year, we were playing for ACC Championships every year, New Year's Day bowl games, College GameDay was here. I remember what this place is supposed to be like," Collins reflected. "It's our task right now to put Georgia Tech back as the national brand that we are supposed to be."

Clearly, Collins is well-traveled. Success has followed him like a shadow. This past season at Temple, Collins won eight of his final ten games with the Owls, losing only at Boston College, in a contest that was a three-point game with under four minutes remaining, and at UCF, in a game Temple led at the break. Collins' Owls went 7-1 in the tough American Athletic Conference and won his final outing with the team by 50 points. Albeit in a limited tenure, quite the impression was made. That is the type of impact Collins can have.   

Collins largely became a national name during his renowned stint as defensive coordinator at Florida. His units, in 2015 and 2016, ranked 8th and 5th in the country in total defense, respectively, elevating the overall profile of the former Western Carolina linebacker. It's worth noting that in each of Collins' two years with the Gators, Florida advanced to the SEC Championship Game. Those trips, right down Northside Drive, proved to be a veritable yellow brick road.

It's been a long trek back for Collins, a coaching tour that has taken some time. After all, no drive through Atlanta is a short one.

As Collins was formally introduced on December 7th, his staff, a group specifically solicited and slotted, came together at a more deliberate pace. For some time, Collins was Georgia Tech's lone forward-transition recruiter, a testament to his persistence. The results proved worth the wait. Collins' assistants include coordinators Dave Patenaude and Andrew Thacker from Temple, offensive line coach Brent Key from Alabama, running backs coach Tashard Choice from North Texas and defensive ends coach Marco Coleman from the Oakland Raiders, the latter three all doubling as former star players for the Yellow Jackets.

With the up-tempo Collins ushering in a new high-energy era at Georgia Tech, he sought out dynamic staffers who carry themselves the same way. Key, who also has the title of assistant head coach, has been quick to tell doubters why he left Alabama for Atlanta. Choice was recently one of six finalists for FootballScoop's Running Backs Coach of the Year award. The push forward, from those who once walked the Flats to others new to them, is a collective one. While momentum is palpable for the Yellow Jackets, it is also digital; the Georgia Tech message, with coaches active and engaged on social media, suddenly has mass appeal.

A next-level framework is the foundation.    

"I've been lucky over the course of my 22 year career to make some really good friends that are high-profile coaches. I wanted to be elite on our coaching staff and I think we have done that," Collins explained. "Just excited about the group of men that have joined us."

Collins and company rallied to sign an impressive and important debut recruiting class, a haul headlined by recent state championship-winning quarterback Jordan Yates, Georgia's 7-A Player of the Year, from nearby Milton High School. Incoming players may be asked to shoulder more responsibility than a traditional first-year group. Looking ahead, there is already a buzz, for lack of a better description, amongst future recruits around Collins, his perspective and the revamped Georgia Tech brand. At the very least, the Yellow Jackets are being talked about in off-season circles that they haven't been for some time: the spotlight.   

Even with a late start on the recruiting trail, Collins stayed true to his convictions. Pushing and promoting the rare opportunity that Georgia Tech is, the staff was able to sign players who fit the new program prototype. Collins, with his first class, set the precedent for the player and the person that the Yellow Jackets need. 

"The big thing is having position flexibility, a lot of length and speed on this roster. Adding that part of it to the equation that really hasn't existed here in the past. We are wanting longer, taller, rangier athletes throughout the roster at every position," he nodded. "We are just going to recruit at an elite level, guys obviously who want to be great in every phase of their lives, academically, athletically, socially, spiritually, all of those things fit that profile of a developmental program guy."

Spring practice on the horizon, the process must settle just as it starts. 

"It's been going great. It was whirlwind those first two months, getting to signing day in February, but now we have got three weeks of the conditioning program under our belt," Collins detailed. "Getting to know the guys on the current roster, setting our sights up for a big 2020 recruiting class, but it's nice to have the full staff in place here on the Flats and we have exciting times ahead of us."

This Georgia Tech off-season won't be like any other in recent memory. The obvious elephant in the room, for the Yellow Jackets, is a potentially-dramatic philosophical shift as the offense progresses from Johnson's flexbone-option to a more modern, versatile approach. After leading Power Five football with 745 attempts and pacing college football with 325 rushing yards per game last season, Georgia Tech is set to have a balanced offensive attack for the first time since 2007.     

The transition will be a unique one. Though the returning players on the roster were recruited for a different scheme, such a comprehensive reset comes with a clean slate and without preconceived notions. This spring should be a fusion of creativity and cohesion as Collins and his staff intertwine their ideas with tried-and-true principles that have been in play on campus for a decade-plus. Georgia Tech's offense will be fluid, multiple and evolving. At this point, there don't seem to be detailed specifics or stifling rigidity to Collins' plans; he will be erasing the notes on the chalkboard and adding to them alike.    

While Johnson recruited a certain type of playmaker for his patented scheme, he, quite regularly, brought in dynamic, multi-position athletes as well. Collins will take full advantage of that utility, especially early on as the roster is filled with talent from the previous regime. Though there may be a learning curve ahead, Georgia Tech has a certain pigskin proficiency already in place.  

"The big thing that I have talked about is roster management. We inherited a roster that had 13 scholarship running backs, zero tight ends, zero slot receivers. So we are just trying to navigate the waters, see what positions guys can do to give themselves a chance to be on the field within our scheme, which is going to have some principles that are based in pro ball and spread concepts," Collins added. "Then we will manage what we do personnel-wise and schematically with what our guys do well as we recruit to our system."

Adaptation will be the theme of the next few months, a notion that goes for both players and coaches together. After all, teaching and learning are oftentimes the exact same thing. With an optimistic tone around campus, everyone is officially on the same page; at this point, that sheet is blank. Collins is eager to scout and, with the help of a nationally-acclaimed staff, adjust on-the-go if needed. Consider it a switch from the flexbone to flexibility.    

"We have brought some great coaches in that have had a lot of success at a lot of places doing a lot of things. We are going to, first and foremost, do what our players do well as we implement our system," he shared. "The same thing defensively, figuring out what we can do with the guys that we have inherited and then add certain guys with this past recruiting class, moving forward to play an elite brand of football on both sides."

As is the case at every program in the country, the quarterbacks, entering spring practice, are the most talked about players on the team at Georgia Tech. What will the depth chart look like? What will the internal expectations be? Collins may not have all of the answers quite yet, but he does have options. Even with the graduation of two-year starter TaQuon Marshall, the Yellow Jackets return redshirt sophomore Tobias Oliver, who rushed for 876 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018, redshirt junior Lucas Johnson and redshirt freshman James Graham. Local stars Demetrius Knight and Yates are also on the way in.  

"There are three scholarship guys that are on our roster going through conditioning right now. Really excited about all of them, dynamic athletes that I have seen throw the football pretty well. Excited about incorporating their leadership abilities and athletic skills," Collins observed. "We have had a quarterback running game in all phases of our offenses before, so we will just do it from a different look then may have existed here over the last eleven years. So, see what the guys can do, build some schemes and packages around what they do well."

It goes without saying that there are plenty of storylines to follow on the football field. Bigger than any single position battle, however, is the brand.

Simply put, there isn't anywhere quite like Georgia Tech, a distinction Collins, an area native who can get from mid-town to Marietta without navigation, is quick to remind you. With four national championships, including a more recent one than archrival Georgia, 16 conference titles and a legacy that had John Heisman on the bench before he was in bronze, this is a program that needs no introduction. Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field, comfortably settled as buildings stretch skyward in all directions, is the oldest continuously-used on-campus site in history and seen the most wins of any venue in the FBS.

The College Football Hall of Fame is in the neighborhood and, there, the Yellow Jackets have 16 rooms.

Furthermore, Atlanta is a global destination. The city, well beyond being simply the epicenter for the game, is an international hub for entertainment, music, fashion, media and the arts. Southern hospitality with swag, Atlanta, with a metro population of nearly six million people, is a one-of-a-kind experience. Collins doesn't just embrace that, he embodies it.      

"This is what we do, this is who we are," Collins nodded. "Recruits chose schools based on their brand and we want to have the strongest brand and the strongest culture in college football. We live in Atlanta, we are one of the top seven academic institutions in the country. There are so many positive things to sell, so we are doing our best to put that out there, embracing the culture around this great city, one of the best cities in America, with the top three most Fortune 500 companies in it, so we are selling all of those things and recruits are really looking into it and seeing what we have to offer."

So much of what Collins does is a reflection of where he is from and, as long anticipated, where he is once again. From Georgia Tech's campus, Collins is within walking distance of most of the world. Like any true southerner, he also has 24-hour griddle access within reach. Collins, at a place known for tradition, has made sure one of his personal favorites is part of routine. Through Collins, the "Institute" has aligned with a down home institution, a palatable rite of passage with over 380 locations in Georgia.

Collins and his assistants have officially made Waffle House their out-of-office extension. And these doors never close. It's been said that elbow grease is a necessary part of any process; here, you can never have too much.

"I love it. Living up in the northeast the last two years, I had to drive an hour and 15 minutes just to get it scattered, smothered and covered, so now that I am back home in Atlanta, I've gone quite a bit," Collins smiled. "It's been fun and that relationship has been great for us."

Early mornings to all-nighters, Collins is committed to his cause. In terms of what Collins wants Georgia Tech to accomplish, the answer is everything; in terms of where he wants the Yellow Jackets to be, the answer is everywhere. Passion and pride may be the quintessential motivators and, there, Collins' cup overflows. Though practices haven't yet started, progress is already underway. Georgia Tech, team-wide, is sprinting towards the future. 

If you want to find Collins or his assistants, look beyond the extra mile. More is the final measure.

"Relentless energy every single day. Going to get great effort in every single thing that we do. There is going to be no stone left unturned. Every detail that can be evaluated is going to be evaluated. Every single day competing," Collins stated. "I don't think working hard, playing with relentless effort is mutually exclusive from having fun. We are going to have a D.J. out at practice during spring ball. We are going to work really, really hard, but we are going to have fun doing it. We are going to have a presence on social media so that fans, recruits, former players of this great institution, get inside access to the excitement that is building."

Adding to this off-season's frenzied pace is the fact that Georgia Tech will open the 2019 season on the road at defending national champion Clemson. Welcome, if you will, to the ACC. Thing is, Collins does welcome such challenges. Atop of college football is where the Yellow Jackets want to be. Though Georgia Tech is going through a program overhaul and the Tigers will undoubtedly be one of the nation's premier teams, Collins sees advantages where others see adversity. In some ways, he wouldn't have it any other way.

Georgia Tech plays both Clemson and Georgia every year and has upcoming contests with, among others, Notre Dame. Some of those showcases are set for Atlanta's famed Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Kicking off his tenure as a powerhouse unveils a championship banner is a fitting introduction for Collins and the new-look Yellow Jackets. They plan for the big stage to become the norm.

"I think it's great, I'm excited," Collins acknowledged. "We get to play a team that is that high quality. It really gives you something to work for the entire off-season, a benchmark to shoot for. A tremendous amount of respect for that program and those players and those coaches. It helps us get focused every single day to continually get better, learn how to play with relentless effort, learn how to play in a pro-style system and become a really, really good football team."

It goes without saying that there is a lot of work to be done. The power of this program is that such a journey is exactly what everyone signed up for. Collins, even with a potential rebuild ahead, wants the expectations that come with leading a traditional name. He is ready for the bright lights, in part, because he was born and raised in them. 

Replacing Johnson certainly won't be easy. An offensive mastermind, he did great work at Georgia Tech, taking the Yellow Jackets to three ACC Championship Games and, as recently as 2014, an Orange Bowl victory. Johnson won 83 games at Georgia Tech and the only coaches with more career wins on the Flats, William Alexander, Bobby Dodd and John Heisman, are all in the College Football Hall of Fame. In over 50 years prior to Johnson's arrival, Georgia Tech had seven nine-win seasons; he, alone, had four. The task is to up the status quo.  

Maybe this is fate. Maybe it's just football. Regardless, history has a funny way of unfolding. A generation ago, Georgia Tech rode a 16-game unbeaten streak to its most recent national title in 1990, the first win in that stretch coming the year before against Western Carolina. That fall, a young defender for the Catamounts, a certain Peach State product, was in his first season of college football.

Get ready. Collins has been for years.  

"This has been a vision and a dream of mine for a long time. This is a dream job for me and that's real," Collins concluded. "I've had visions of what this place can be because I've lived it."

Geoff Collins isn't merely Georgia Tech's head coach. From metro Atlanta, with prior resume stops that started it all, he is Georgia Tech football in a collard-shirt and a 404 hat. He is a quick lane change on I-75. He is an All-Star Special. When Collins looks around, he sees more than just big buildings.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports