New football staff changes in important year

Tech football head coach Brent Key pictured at the 2022 game against UGA in Sanford Stadium. Key will have his first full season as head coach in the 2023-2024 season as he looks to rebuild a struggling Jackets team. // Photo by Taylor Gray Student Publications

Amid 2022’s midseason coaching change, former interim head coach Brent Key found himself with eight games to show what his team could do. In an interview with ACC Huddle last week, he highlighted the coaches around him for instilling “black-and-white concrete things” that the team could focus in on. 

Now he has the opportunity to handpick his staff heading into his first year as head coach. 

Starting on offense, the Jacket’s scoring attack will be coordinated by Buster Faulkner and Chris Weinke. Weinke, a former Heisman Trophy winner and quarterbacks coach at Tennessee, joined the Jackets staff last season as the quarterbacks coach. He prepared redshirt freshman Zach Pyron and redshirt junior Zach Gibson for the starts they made in relief of former starting quarterback sophomore Jeff Sims, which likely had an influence on the decision to name him co-offensive coordinator. 

On the other hand, Faulkner is a new arrival from the reigning national champion Georgia Bulldogs staff. His work as an offensive quality control coach from 2020-2022 directly impacted the performance of former Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV. Bennett cited him as an impressive football mind, great communicator and effective mediator between himself and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. 

Before his time at Georgia, Faulkner was an offensive coordinator at Southern Mississippi, Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee and Murray State. At Southern Mississippi, he oversaw an offense that finished first in pass offense, fifth in scoring offense and sixth in total offense. Unfortunately, they were also nearly last in rush offense. Based on his history of passing offense success and effect on Bennett, it is fair to expect that he and Weinke will be able to improve a Jackets aerial offense that only generated 2,306 passing yards. 

A central part in achieving that goal is deciding whether Pyron, Gibson or redshirt sophomore Texas A&M transfer Haynes King will be the 2023 starting quarterback. 

Whoever the starting quarterback is, they will hopefully be throwing to a talented group of receivers, led by new receivers coach Josh Crawford. Crawford brings extensive experience coaching Georgia high school powerhouses and Western Kentucky’s receivers in their high-flying Air Raid system. Although the Jacket’s receiving core is unproven, redshirt junior Texas A&M transfer Chase Lane slots in as an intriguing starter for Crawford to mold. Fellow redshirt junior transfer Abdul Janneh, promising incumbents and redshirt sophomores Leo Blackburn and Malik Rutherford, and junior slot receiver Christian Leary could also be key parts of the Jackets receiving core under Crawford.  

The Jackets need to improve running the football; their 3.4 yards per carry and 122.6 rushing yards per game ranked 102nd and 93rd in the country. Key has tapped Norval McKenzie to be the new running backs coach/running game coordinator. McKenzie occupied the same position at Vanderbilt from 2021-2022 and ACC rival Louisville from 2019-2020. Under his tutelage, Vanderbilt had a 1000-yard rusher for only the seventh time in its program’s history, and freshman running back Javian Hawkins — also a former Atlanta Falcon — set the Louisville record for rushing yards in a season. If McKenzie can help sophomore running back Jamie Felix and redshirt senior running back Dontae Smith elevate their games, then the Jackets will be a much more consistent offense in 2023. 

A more consistent offense is also predicated on better performance from the offensive line. Former Appalachian State offensive line coach Geep Wade will be joining the offensive staff in the same role for 2023. His main responsibility is to identify clear starters at all five positions. None of last year’s starters have unquestionably staked a claim to their spots in 2023 — Wade’s success in finding a strong five could be the linchpin for the Jacket’s season. Defensively, the Jackets’ leadership will be a mix of familiar and different faces under Key. The unit’s overall coordinator is still Andrew Thacker, and the defensive back coaching remains unchanged with Travares Tillman. 

However, Marco Coleman is returning to Tech to coach the defensive line. Coleman, a member of the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame and former NFL Pro Bowler, served as the defensive ends/outside linebacker coach from 2019-2021. His return will be essential, seeing as how defensive line stalwart Keion White has departed for the 2023 NFL Draft. The remaining group is untested, but Coleman’s previous experience makes him a strong candidate to get the best out of them. 

Kevin Sherrer is also slated to coach the linebackers and serve as co-defensive coordinator with Thacker. He has coached All-American linebackers at Georgia in Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd, but also brings NFL coaching experience from his time on the 2020 and 2021 New York Giants staff. 

Longtime starters Charlie Thomas and Ace Eley have both left to pursue their NFL dreams, vacating spots for transfers redshirt senior Braelen Oliver from Minnesota and senior Andre White from Texas A&M to step in. 

It will be interesting to see what Sherrer can do with incumbent junior linebacker Trenilyas Tatum. Tatum started four games last season and brings the most experience with the program, but Oliver and White started multiple seasons at their former schools. Expect all three to vie for starting jobs in the fall. 

In Key’s first season at the helm, it’s crucial that he surrounds himself with the right people. Each of the new hires brings something unique to the table and should hopefully improve their respective units. If Key has indeed found the right people to set concrete fundamentals, there’s no reason why the Jackets can’t have a rebound season in 2023.