Georgia Tech rarely pulls in the highest rated high school players but they still manage to produce noise on a national stage and even produce a number of NFL draft picks.
Shaq Mason was just a modest 3 star recruit by Scout and Rivals, but by his senior season become a USA Today First Team All-American. Zach Laskey came to Tech as a safety and punt returner and ended up an accomplished B-back and is now fighting to make the St. Louis Rams’ roster. DeAndre Smelter came to Tech on a baseball scholarship and played pitcher and outfield and is now on the roster of the San Francisco 49ers as a wide receiver.
There are a number of player who can forge a similar path, whether by switching positions or other circumstance. Here are my five breakout players for 2015:
1. WR Antonio Messick
Hear me out on this one; I almost picked talented redshirt sophomore Ricky Jeune for this spot. Messick comes in at fourth on the Tech wide receiver depth chart currently under the assumption Michael Summers is ready to go on against Alcorn State. My bold prediction is that he ends up in the top two by season’s end, leaping past both Brad Stewart and Summers.
Georgia Tech has earned the moniker “Wide Receiver U” with its many alums now suiting up on Sundays. This past summer produced two draftees, DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller, not to mention Stephen Hill and Demaryius Thomas before them. The common thread among that quartet is 6’3″ or bigger height, raw speed (as indicated by his 4.47 40 meter performance), agility, and jumping ability. Messick fits that bill more than Stewart or Summers.
As I highlighted in the wide receiver preview, Messick’s lone contribution to the team last year was a garbage time touchdown but it shows his ability to ward off defenders and rise to meet the ball at its highest point. Someone will have to fill the void that Smelter and Waller created, and Messick has as good a résumé as anyone to accomplish that.
2. AB Isiah Willis
Paul Johnson’s offensive approach is often derided as gimmicky, despite being incredibly efficient year after year. Last season, the offense was playing at such a high level, some measures ranked it as the most efficient college offense since 2007.
One amazing aspect of this offense has been its ability to take little known recruits and walk-ons and turn them into productive offensive weapons. Robert Godhigh is one such example. Godhigh walked onto the team and rushed for 429 yards in 2012, second among A-backs, and bested that with 744 yard campaign in 2013, best among A-backs and second overall. Godhigh remains second in the entire ACC in career yards per rush at 8.82.
While it will be difficult for Willis to top that, his story draws close parallels thus far. He has worked his way into favor with coaches, and then into a scholarship, with the work he put in at practice as a walk-on. Now, Isiah is in line to see a lot of touches with so many A-back spots to fill.
Willis is just 5’9″, taller than Godhigh at 5’7″ but still diminutive, which allows him to duck behind the big offensive line unseen as he darts toward the sideline. Willis was a track star in high school, and marrying that with the blocking he has worked on tirelessly over the past three years and there’s no reason to believe Willis won’t succeed in 2015.
3. SLB Tyler Marcordes
As I mentioned in the linebacker positional preview, in his senior season Marcordes figures to play all three downs, even with five defensive backs on the field. He has appeared in every possible game since redshirting in his first year and is now tied for the most senior role on the team.
Tyler has a knack for making big plays, like forcing and recovering a fumble in the Clean, Old Fashioned Hate game. Although Marcordes was only 11th on the team in tackles with 20 last season, he was 5th in tackles for a loss with 5.5 and 4th in sacks with 2.0 despite the limited playing time. His vision and awareness are among the best on the team and was one of seemingly hundred high school quarterbacks who suit up for the white and gold.
With the speed of PJ Davis next to him, Tyler can provide both brute force and wisdom that comes with experience. And on a defense that wants to play faster and looser this season, Marcordes is one of the few Jackets who can mentally slow the game down with his seniority and win his assignments.
4. DT Jabari Hunt-Days
This young man has had quite the 12 month route to the position he is in, on and off the field. Hunt-Days was a highly sought after linebacker when he arrived on campus. With a four-star rating and as member of Rivals top 250 players in the 2011 class, Hunt-Days remains be one of the highest rated recruits of Paul Johnson’s tenure. After two strong seasons at outside linebacker and trying to put on weight to be a down lineman, Hunt-Days found himself academically ineligible to play in 2014.
Still, Jabari figures to star at his new defensive tackle position in his senior season. He has a strong base and uses that to leverage past opposing blockers. With the protection of Adam Gotsis and Keshun Freeman beside him, Hunt-Days could be a veritable terror on interior offensive linemen and a real threat to land on an All-American team at season’s end.
5. K Harrison Butker
We all know about “the Kick”, but Butker really struggled with his accuracy in 2014. His 61.1% field goal percentage placed him in the bottom third of the FBS.
Harrison was the 10th ranked high school kicker in the country in 2013 according to Rivals, and was a rare primary place kicker in his true freshman year. There is no doubt about his talent. Just this August, Butker hit 4 straight field goals from successive distances of 32, 37, 42, and this one from 47 yards to end a practice, and just look at the team’s reaction. How about that for a confidence booster!
Butker has been good at kickoffs, punching 63.3% off all kickoffs into the endzone for touchbacks, 14th in the FBS last season. The leg strength is there, as evidenced by his 9/13 (69.2%) mark on field goals from 40 yards and farther. All it takes is slowing the game down on the shorter kicks, especially from 30-39 yards, and turning a few misses into makes, and he will vault himself into the upper third of the FBS. Between the big kicks he nailed last season and the work he has done in the offseason, Harrison is ready to kick butts in 2015.