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Inside The Chart: All Hail

All Hail: Jaylon King’s production has been impressive this season. But behind closed doors, the safety’s leadership has been even more valuable during Georgia Tech’s climb to bowl eligibility.

Inside The Chart | By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets)

They poured out from the sideline in chaotic fractals of white, celebrating a moment they had worked so hard to achieve. Some jumped into the front row of the student section. Others rolled their helmets like a bowling ball. Jamal Haynes did a backflip.

All around, Georgia Tech’s players erupted in joy following their bowl-clinching win over Syracuse at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Hyundai Field. Yet there was sixth-year senior Jaylon King, the opposite of ostentatious, standing on the Yellow Jackets’ sideline, locked in a long hug with fellow safety LaMiles Brooks.

“I shed a little tear here and there. I don’t think too many people know that. That moment was special. It meant a lot,” King said.

“We just hugged each other, said we loved you, said we did it for each other, and that we were proud of each other.”

VIDEO: Jaylon King and Brent Key on ACC Huddle (Syracuse postgame)

His career won’t end this week in the 117th edition of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate versus Georgia (7:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports). Blissfully, that will come sometime next month. But the LaVergne, Tenn., native, one of the last remaining recruits from Georgia Tech’s class of 2018, knows he’s in the midst of an ending even he couldn’t have scripted.

“To see him come back and have a little bit of spotlight and make the plays that he’s making, it’s very fulfilling. Being alongside him is one of the best things ever,” Brooks said.

“He’s what everyone aspires for their sons to be like. His work ethic, his drive, his determination, everything that he’s been able to accomplish and has gone through to accomplish those things. I can’t say a bad word about Jaylon,” said head coach Brent Key.

Opposing offenses, on the other hand, have probably muttered their share of unprintables about him. His four interceptions are the most in a season by a Yellow Jacket since D.J. White and Jamal Golden in 2014. Along with his two fumble recoveries, he’s tied with Miami’s Kamren Kinchens for the most takeaways in the ACC. His 62 tackles trail only linebacker Kyle Efford for most on the team. On Monday, he was voted one of Georgia Tech’s four permanent team captains. All-ACC honors seem like a very real possibility.

And three months ago, King questioned whether he’d ever return to his same level of effectiveness.

“I had my doubts going into this season. I didn’t know how well I’d be able to move around,” he admitted.

King missed the last two months of the 2022 season after fracturing his right tibia in Georgia Tech’s win over Pittsburgh at Acrisure Stadium. In order to repair it, doctors had to drill through his knee to put in a rod, then inserted two screws just below the knee.

VIDEO: Jaylon King feature on ACC Huddle

The screws, though, began to limit the strength in his hamstring. Tech’s athletic training staff conducted a test and found that his right hamstring was 200 points weaker than his left one. They decided to remove the screws – one in April, one in July – which slowed his rehab further. He then tweaked his hamstring days before Tech’s season opener against Louisville. The prospect of playing his sixth season at less than full strength weighed on him.

“Once the season approached, I didn’t know how well my movement patterns would be, how well I was going to be getting in and out of breaks,” he said.

Tech’s coaches targeted King for 10 to 12 snaps against the Cardinals. When Brooks went down with an injury early in the first quarter, King stepped in and refused to come off the field; his hamstring throbbed, but he knew his team needed him.

He wound up tying his career-high with eight tackles. Three weeks later, he earned his first career ACC Defensive Back of the Week award for his two-turnover, five-tackle performance in a road win over Wake Forest.

“He’s a model of what you want to a Georgia Tech football player to be. Being injured last year, missing the second half of the season, being able to come back this year and make up for it with the way he’s playing, it’s been awesome to watch,” Key said.

Yet Tech’s coaches and teammates are just as quick to praise King for the way he’s made others better. In the days following his tibia injury, King still bunkered himself in the safeties room to watch film with his replacement, true freshman Clayton Powell-Lee.  He didn’t want Powell-Lee, still a neophyte at free safety, to feel overwhelmed heading into their homecoming matchup with Duke.

When game day arrived, King asked if he could watch the game from Key’s office, which overlooks the north end of Bobby Dodd Stadium and has multiple TV’s for watching replays.

“He sat here with a notebook, took notes, watched the entire game. At halftime, they bring him down the elevator. He’s in the locker room, waiting for Clayton to come in. He has all his notes for him. It was almost like another coach in the box. As someone who had just been injured a week prior, how he took him under his wing as a big brother and as a mentor was outstanding,” Key recalled.

That counsel continued throughout the year, which ended with Powell-Lee earning freshman all-America honors.

“After extra single series me and him [were] literally talking the entire time – about certain things I saw, about how he saw things, how I can play things the next series,” Powell-Lee said last year.

King and Brooks have shared a close bond since King hosted him on his official visit as a junior. His teammate’s injury only served to motivate him more.

“The game after he got injured, I taped his name to the back of my helmet. Everything I did last year was for him,” Brooks said.

As he recovered from surgery and finished the final courses for his civil engineering degree in December, King said he mulled the idea of wrapping up his playing career.  He made his connections. He’d have his degree. Did he really need to continue playing football? Ultimately he decided to come back for his additional Covid year, determined to finish his career on his own terms.

But with Brooks and Powell-Lee emerging as one of the better safety duos in the ACC, would there even be a spot for him when he returned? Did he worry that Powell-Lee, thanks in part to his own tutelage, had jumped him on the depth chart? That all his rehab would go for naught?

King said he never looked at it that way.

“We always sit there, watch each other try to give each other different tips and things of that nature. I wasn’t too worried about it. He wasn’t too worried about it. We just wanted to go out there and make plays and win and help each other,” he explained.

They’ve done plenty of that this year – King, Brooks and Powell-Lee rank second, third and fourth on the Yellow Jackets in tackles. Bowl eligibility hardly seemed a given, though, as Tech wobbled to a 3-4 record in late October. With their margin for error narrowing, Key saw King raise his leadership even more.

“When you’re playing meaningful games in November, you’re not playing those games without guys like Jaylon King,” he said. “To be able to take the message that I give the entire coaching staff and really be an extension of me for the motivation, the encouragement, the discipline, the accountability – all of those things that he’s been able to do, and to see it on the sideline and other people following along, doing it with him, it’s pretty cool to see.”

That continued in Georgia Tech’s preparation for Syracuse, where King – ahem, invited himself – into the linebacker and defensive line meeting rooms to share his observations of his film study. He also shot them texts throughout the week with tips on Syracuse’s alignments and formations.

“Just taking time out of my preparation to help my teammates prepare as well. I can’t really do it without them,” he said matter-of-factly.

“You get to that point – he’s not asking permission. He’s doing it because he knows it’s right. He is not afraid to do the uncommon thing,” Key added.

The fruits of that preparation paid off Saturday, capped off by an emotional embrace on the Georgia Tech sideline. Remarkably, King has only played Georgia once in his career, a six-tackle effort at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Hyundai Field in 2019. King redshirted in 2018; missed the 2021 game due to a concussion suffered the week before; and didn’t play in last year’s edition due to his tibia injury. The series was also put on hiatus in 2020 due to Covid.

“I haven’t really got to experience that true rivalry yet,” he said.

He’ll get his chance this Saturday, a leader and captain, ready to add another line to a dream script in his final season.

Competitive Drive Initiative Turn 2

Looking to build on the success of last year’s Competitive Drive Initiative, Georgia Tech, the Georgia Tech Foundation and Georgia Tech athletics are partnering once again to launch Competitive Drive Initiative Turn 2. CDI Turn 2 has a goal of raising $2.5 million in new gifts to the Alexander-Tharpe Fund’s Athletic Scholarship Fund by Dec. 31, and Georgia Tech and the Georgia Tech Foundation will match eligible gifts to accelerate the impact for Tech athletics. Like last year, not only will gifts to CDI Turn 2 be matched, but so will the contributor’s benefits in the way of A-T Fund giving levels and priority points. To learn more and contribute online, visit atfund.org/turn2.

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