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Inside The Chart: Before The Rise

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

As a running back, Tashard Choice thrived on vision, on sensing an opportunity before others did. Trusting his intuition, then attacking it with single-minded purpose.

Those traits served Choice well during a 3,000-yard rushing career at Georgia Tech and again during a six-year stint in the NFL. And they continue to serve him as Georgia Tech’s second-year running backs coach, where his instincts helped him identify the next potential star in the Yellow Jackets’ backfield.

“I’m sitting in my room. I’m in my Mom’s house. We had just gotten here at Tech. And (GT assistant coach) Nathan Burton sends me a text saying, ‘Choice, check this kid out,’” Choice recalled.

On Saturday, Georgia Tech fans got their first glimpse at the subject of that cryptic text. Making his collegiate debut against No. 13 UCF at Bobby Dodd Stadium, freshman running back Jahmyr Gibbs showed why he had earned so much buzz since signing with Tech out of Dalton High School in Dalton, Ga.  On his first touch, he returned the opening kickoff 75 yards to set up a Georgia Tech touchdown. He finished with 66 rushing yards, a team-high 60 receiving yards, and both a rushing and receiving touchdown. The performance earned him ACC Rookie of the Week, the second-straight week a Georgia Tech player has taken home that honor.

“He’s a big-time athlete, a big-time player and a big-time competitor,” said head coach Geoff Collins.

For Tech fans, it was immediate confirmation of the lofty credentials that Gibbs brought to The Flats as the No. 2-ranked all-purpose back in the nation according to Rivals. But it’s easy to forget that a year-and-a-half ago, after Gibbs’ junior season, the 5-11, 200-pounder was still a three-star prospect. Talented, but far from exalted as the next big thing.

But Choice, Collins and Burton saw early what other programs didn’t see until late. So confident were they in Gibbs’ ability that they made him the No. 1 running back on their recruiting board, even though he only carried those three stars. By the time his profile exploded and his recruiting rankings soared, by the time he was named a U.S. Army All-American and nearly every coach in the country came calling, Choice and Gibbs had formed a bond that would prove unbreakable. Rather than sign with a program that siphoned off someone else’s shrewd evaluation, Gibbs signed with one of the first major programs that believed in his potential.

The beginning of Jahmyr Gibbs’ on-field story at Georgia Tech began last Saturday.

How Georgia Tech’s coaches first identified him is a story in itself.

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ACC DIGITAL NETWORK VIDEO: Georgia Tech RB Jahmyr Gibbs Flashes In Opportunity

Burton’s first recruiting find came with an assist from his wife.

The former Yellow Jacket had just returned to his alma mater, where he and his wife Britney met as undergrads, to serve as Collins’ safeties coach. Tech’s new staff had been on the job less than a month and was still wrapping up its first signing class, but was already plotting out its priorities for the class of 2020.

In early February of 2019, a relative of Britney reached out to Burton with a link to some highlights.

“My wife was actually born in Dalton, and she has a lot of extended family in Dalton,” Burton explained. “One of her second cousins actually texted me and said, ‘Hey Nate, there’s a kid up here that’s pretty special. You might want to check him out.’”

Curious, Burton clicked on the link. It was the junior year highlights of Gibbs, who had just rushed for 1,431 yards and 20 touchdowns for Dalton, a 6-A school 90 miles north of Atlanta.

Burton was smitten.

“He does everything you want to see an elite running back do on film. He had speed, he had angles, he changed his speed, he had burst. I sent it to Coach Choice as soon as I watched it and said, ‘Hey Tashard, you need to check this kid out today,’” he recalled.

Choice, staying temporarily at his Mom’s house after joining the Yellow Jackets’ staff, took a look.

“I text Nate back: ‘Who is this kid?’ He sends me the name. I send him a message. Jahmyr still has that message from that night. And ever since then, I knew that kid was special,” Choice said.

A short time later, Choice sat down and watched the highlights with general manager Patrick Suddes, who directs Georgia Tech’s recruiting office.

“After two plays we looked at each other and said, ‘This is the guy.’ Then it was full speed ahead,” Suddes said.

Georgia Tech offered Gibbs a scholarship on February 15, 2019. Not only that, they made him their top running back target in the class of 2020. Throughout the recruiting cycle, Tech’s coaches never took Gibbs off its No. 1 spot.

Yet at that point, in spite of his statistics and highlights, Gibbs remained a three-star prospect. He hadn’t yet cracked Rivals’ list of the top 250 players in the class of 2020. Recruiting sometimes follows a herd mentality; programs shy away from chasing lightly ranked players, fearful of the optics it presents to their fan base.

“I didn’t need to see the rankings. I know what I saw,” said Choice, who leaned on a piece of scouting advice he received from a pair of former coaches at Tech.

Curtis Modkins, who’s the running backs coach of the Denver Broncos right now, he and Coach [Chan] Gailey taught me something that I always remember. He always said when he evaluated running backs, the ability for them to make people miss – that’s one thing you cannot coach,” he explained.

Geoff Collins was also undeterred. As director of player personnel for Alabama in 2007, he evaluated the film of an under-the-radar junior linebacker from Lewisburg, Tenn., named Dont’a Hightower. He wasn’t ranked in Rivals’ Top 250, but Collins was convinced he was watching the best high school linebacker in the country. Alabama’s head coach, Nick Saban, agreed. Hightower blossomed into a U.S. Army All-American and went on to become a consensus All-American for the Crimson Tide.

Collins saw parallels when he appraised Gibbs’ film.

“We don’t worry about stars, we don’t worry about rankings, we don’t worry about who has offered or all of those things. We know what we’re looking for as a player in this program: athletically, their skill set, their size, their speed, their character, their determination, and how they’re going to fit into this culture,” Collins said.

Gibbs connected with the culture at Tech, developing a kinship with Collins, Choice and the Yellow Jackets’ staff. He verbally committed to Tech on May 25, citing in no small part the close bond he had formed with Choice. The Jackets responded by no longer recruiting another running back in his class.

That relationship carried into Gibbs’ senior season, where his highlights suddenly became too breathtaking for other major schools to ignore. In the season opener he rushed for 420 yards and eight touchdowns in a little more than three quarters in a win over Ringgold. The following week, he ran for 183 yards and four touchdowns against rival Northwest Whitfield. A week after that, he opened region play with 226 rushing yards and five touchdowns. His video-game runs became retweet catnip every Friday night. Physically, he had transformed as well: his head coach at Dalton, Matt Lamb, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Gibbs packed on 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.

“The kid was just unbelievable. His feet movement, his movement skills, his ability to change directions – I thought it was elite,” said Choice.

As his numbers skyrocketed, so did his profile. On October 11, Gibbs jumped a whopping 272 spots in 247Sports’ player rankings, climbing to No. 132 nationally and the No. 4 all-purpose back. Within three weeks, Alabama, LSU and Ohio State had all offered. After staying unranked throughout the summer, Rivals elevated him to No. 111 nationally on December 4. A fourth star from Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN soon followed.

Collins knew other schools would come hard at Gibbs, looking to snag a fast-rising, buzzworthy prospect. But the Yellow Jackets’ coach had faith in the relationship they had built with him since the previous winter.

“We saw that value in him early on in the process, stayed with him, and built the relationship. Hats off to Coach Choice, our offensive staff, and everybody in the organization for recognizing the type of talent that Jahmyr Gibbs is,” Collins said.

That’s not to say they didn’t keep recruiting him hard. On January 17, the first day of the NCAA contact period for seniors who hadn’t yet signed, Georgia Tech’s staff launched an operation it dubbed “Midnight Madness.” A squad of nine coaches surprised Gibbs by meeting him at his house at 12:01 a.m.

Their diligence was rewarded a few weeks later. On February 5, almost a year after Nathan Burton received an unsolicited text from his wife’s second cousin, Gibbs signed with Georgia Tech at a ceremony at Dalton High School.

“Especially for Coach Choice and me, both being back home, both playing at Tech, being in-state, just taking pride in the talent that comes out of this state – that’s a sense of pride. To say that we could find a kid in the state of Georgia, and he’s going to be elite, and we get on him early, whether we listen to family or it’s our scouting department that brings him to us,” Burton said.

The fruits of that early evaluation were on full display at Bobby Dodd Stadium last week. And when Jahmyr Gibbs lines up for Georgia Tech against Syracuse this Saturday (12:00 p.m. EST, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Learfield IMG College), fans will once again get a glimpse of a future that Tech’s coaches saw before almost anyone else.

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