By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
2018 Signing Class
College football’s first early signing period felt a little like dessert for Georgia Tech, especially at the end when quarterback James Graham opted on Friday, Dec. 22, to become a Yellow Jacket.
Ranked the No. 18 “athlete” in the nation by 247 Sports, the young man from Fitzgerald High School may be like chocolate and caramel drizzle atop ice cream.
At 6-feet-1, 180 pounds and blessed with special speed, quickness and agility, the unanimous four-star recruit appears to be a smooth fit for Paul Johnson’s offense after changing his mind following a verbal commitment to Virginia Tech.
So, after 17 future football players put their signatures on letters of intent on Wednesday, Dec. 20, when the new window opened, and then on the third and final day Graham joined forces it probably wasn’t a surprise that Tech’s Coach Johnson rated the new early signing period as a winner.
“I like the early signing period . . . the guys who have been [verbally] committed, the way the process has gone, 80 percent of your class is committed before the season is over, maybe more, so it enables you to sign those guys . . . and if they don’t sign, you know they’re not committed.
“They’re just holding a reservation and kind of they make sure they don’t find something that they like better,” said Johnson.
Tech gained signatures from four defensive backs, three offensive linemen, three defensive linemen, two wide receivers, two potential A-backs, two linebackers, a quarterback and Jaylen Jackson of Brunswick, who is considered “an athlete.”
This wasn’t just about offense and defense.
Several new Jackets will be candidates to help Tech in the return games, where the team struggled in 2017.
Multiple members of this recruiting class may vie for jobs taking kickoffs and punts.
Defensive back Juanyeh Thomas of Niceville (Fla.) High, returned interceptions for touchdowns in five consecutive games as a sophomore (a national high school record), and returned two punts for touchdowns as a senior.
A-backs Dontae Smith of Spring Hill (Tenn.) and Tijai Whatley of the Darlington School may factor in the return game. Whatley, a 6-2, 195-pound resident of Rome, rushed for 1,502 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior, and had a 357-yard game as a junior.
Jackson, who had a school-record 105-yard interception return for a touchdown earlier this fall, when he played wide receiver and defensive back for Brunswick, is a candidate as well.
“Dontae Smith is a guy who was runner-up for Mr. Football in Tennessee . . . and is really impressive. When you talk to coaches down near Brunswick and Savannah they all think that Jaylen [Jackson] was probably if not the best, one of the top players in that area,” Johnson said.
“He can do a lot of things. He can return kicks, he’s got great speed. One of our emphasizes in recruiting [was] we wanted to make sure we found somebody who could return kicks, and I think both those guys can do that as well as [defensive back] Jaylen King; he’s a kick returner, too. Taji – a kick returner as well, so that should give us some options.”
Tech fans will want to pay attention to linebacker Justice Dingle of Bowling Green, Ky., defensive lineman T.K. Chimedza of Dacula and IMG Academy (Fla.), and defensive back Jaylon King of La Vergne, Tenn.
They’re all rated four-star prospects, like Graham.
At 6-3, 245 pounds, Dingle is one of six future Yellow Jackets in this class recruited primarily by McCollum.
“Physical, big, he played a lot of roles for his high school team. He can rush the passer at defensive end and he played linebacker,” Johnson said of Dingle. “He’s a guy that has a motor that can run. He’s 245, and he’s got a chance to be big. He could be a linebacker inside, or he may go into something else, but he can run.”
Chimedza (6-3, 300) and Austin Smith (6-4, 295) of Ola High in McDonough may one day help the Jackets stiffen up in the middle. Luke Johns (6-5, 250) of Southwest Whitfield will probably beginning working at defensive end.
“We think T.K. is a real good player,” Johnson said. “He’s athletic for a big guy, good feet, we think he can play inside and he’s also athletic enough to play outside . . . “
Eleven of Tech’s 18 early signees are from Georgia, including Lawrenceville wide receiver Malachai Carter. The 6-3, 185-pound senior from Mountain View High School caught 72 passes for a Gwinnett County-record 1,348 yards this past season.
He and Peje’ Harris of Newnan High may find themselves in the mix quickly.
“Malachai had a really good year and led Gwinnett County in receiving,” Johnson said. “I told both those guys . . . they need to try to come in here and compete for playing time.”
The traditional signing window will reopen in early February, and the Jackets are likely to add between one and four more Jackets depending on the number of student-athletes currently on the team who decide to transfer or opt out of their eligibility.
Also, several newcomers figure to be on hand when spring practice begins, as, Johnson said, “I think we’ll have five or six enroll early.”
Tech’s head coach is a fan of the new early signing period, although he might like to move up the date even more, like maybe to the week after conference championship games are played so as to conflict less with bowl season.
This new protocol lessens some of monitoring coaches typically experience while trying to keep their prospects on board.
“Several of our guys this last week were getting bombarded, just getting killed by some major Power 5 schools trying to get them to flip. At least now that’s over . . . so I think it’s a positive thing,” Johnson said. “Would I have picked the date? Probably not.
“I would have had the date earlier, and I don’t know if you would sign as many if it was earlier but you would have certainly got the guys who are [completely] committed.”