Georgia Tech, Northern Illinois look for improvement in opener

National Sports

Georgia Tech’s third season under coach Geoff Collins gets underway Saturday when the Yellow Jackets host Northern Illinois at Atlanta in the season opener for both teams.

Georgia Tech was 3-7 in 2020 as Collins steadfastly loaded up with prospects that fit his schemes, particularly his pro-style offense, as the Yellow Jackets continue to distance themselves from the spread option attack used successfully by former coach Paul Johnson.

Collins said the team has grown close during the offseason. “To see how guys have matured in the locker room, how they’re seeing the big picture and enjoy being around each other is so nice,” he said. “This a very focused group.”

The offense is led by quarterback Jeff Sims, who threw for 1,881 yards and 13 touchdowns and ran for 492 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman in 2020. But Sims also threw 13 interceptions and struggled at times with ball security.

There is a good group of running backs, led by Jahmyr Gibbs, who ran for 460 yards and four touchdowns and caught 24 passes before injuring his knee. Jordan Mason, the team’s leading rusher in 2019, ran for 352 yards in 2020. The top returning receivers are Malachi Carter and Adonicas Sanders.

The defense is led by linebackers Quez Jackson and Maryland transfer Ayinde Eley, and an experienced secondary that includes cornerback Tre Swilling and safeties Juanyeh Thomas and Tariq Carpenter.

Northern Illinois was very young last season — the second-youngest in FBS with 71 percent of the roster made up of underclassmen — and finished 0-6 against a Mid-American Conference-only schedule. NIU returns nine starters on offense and 10 on defense.

The Huskies’ biggest question mark may be quarterback. Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi threw for 1,902 yards for the Spartans from 2018-20 and helped them beat Michigan and Northwestern last season. Freshman Ethan Hampton enrolled in January and won the backup role. None of the quarterbacks on the roster completed a pass for NIU in 2020.

“I like our quarterback room,” said NIU coach Thomas Hammock, who begins his third season as head coach. “Rocky has come in and been the type of player that we need him to be. He’s an extension of the coaching staff. He handles all the checks, he gets guys linked up and he’s the leader out there.”

NIU’s top returning backs are Harrison Waylee (456 yards rushing, one TD) and Erin Collins (192 yards rushing, four TDs). The three top receivers also return, including Tyrice Richie, who had 53 catches and four touchdowns in 2020.

The defense is led by cornerback Jordan Gandy, who led the team with 41 tackles and seven pass breakups, all-conference linebacker Kyle Pugh, hard-hitting safety Devin Lafayette and defensive lineman/linebacker Nick Rattin.

This will be the first ever meeting between the two teams.

–Field Level Media

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