Georgia Tech’s loss of safety A.J. Gray and offensive tackle Jake Stickler because of medical reasons, announced Monday, is a sad one for both players and their teammates, the premature conclusions of careers with more Saturday afternoons yet to play.
Gray was expected to be a third-year starter in the secondary for the Yellow Jackets and Stickler, at the least, figured to compete for a starting job at tackle. Both, though, will have the opportunity to complete their degrees, Stickler in literature, media and communication and Gray in business administration.
Indeed, football was only part of the equation for their decisions to attend Tech. Before his signing with Tech in February 2014, Stickler said that he chose Tech over Missouri because “the curriculum at Georgia Tech is more what I’m looking to study.” Before Gray arrived at Tech in June 2015, his father, Allen, – the principal at Washington County High – said that he was “dancing in the streets” when A.J. committed in March 2014 because he recognized the value of a Tech degree.
While Mr. Gray undoubtedly is disappointed that his son won’t play his senior season or have a chance at the NFL because of a heart condition, he likely is feeling some reassurance in knowing his son is on track to earn a degree for which a $60,000 starting salary is average.
From a football perspective, both losses are significant. Stickler, whose medical condition was not disclosed, likely would have been in a tackle rotation with Jahaziel Lee and Andrew Marshall. Jack DeFoor, Bailey Ivemeyer, Zach Quinney and Will Bryan were other possibilities. However, question marks abound. Marshall did not play last season because of injury and also missed spring practice. Quinney is a redshirt freshman. Bryan also is needed at guard.
It does appear possible that DeFoor will be able to play this season. DeFoor, a transfer from Ole Miss, has sought an immediate eligibility waiver from the NCAA on the contention that he was misled during his recruitment to Ole Miss about the severity of NCAA sanctions that the school was facing. Another former Ole Miss player who sought the same waiver after transferring to Michigan, Shea Patterson, received a waiver.
Stickler was not a star, but was to bring back the experience gained in 10 starts. He becomes the latest of a number of Tech offensive linemen not to complete their playing eligibility in recent seasons, for health reasons or otherwise, including Chase Roberts (medical), Eason Fromayan (left to pursue a career in NASCAR), Chris Griffin (medical), Trey Klock (graduate transfer).
With the loss, Tech becomes more reliant on Marshall being healthy, Quinney to be productive as a redshirt freshman and also for center Kenny Cooper to return from his own injury in a timely manner. Two of the more likely candidates to replace Cooper, who had surgery to repair a foot or lower-leg injury suffered in spring practice, are Lee and Marshall.
The loss of Gray from the Jackets’ secondary will make an impact. An intelligent safety with a nose for the ball, Gray was to be the lone returnee in the five-man secondary from last season. Gray started 23 games and played in 33 games total. Last season, he ranked third on the team in tackles with 54, and his 43 solo stops led the defense. Gray would have brought stability to the secondary and likely would have been counted on to be a playmaker for a defense that needed one.
Instead, the job may go to someone like Christian Campbell, Tariq Carpenter or Kaleb Oliver, all three of whom took a lot of practice reps in the spring with Jalen Johnson and Gray out. Carpenter is a sophomore who played six games last season as a freshman, mostly on special teams. Campbell is a junior who has played in 20 games in his first two seasons, also largely on special teams. Oliver is a redshirt freshman.
It’s conceivable that any of those three, or perhaps someone else, could grab the job and surpass expectations, similar to how B-back KirVonte Benson became an All-ACC selection after Dedrick Mills was dismissed from the team in August. Few could have foreseen Justin Thomas’ quarterbacking excellence when he stepped into the starting role after Vad Lee transferred.
There are examples, too, of course, of backups not quite measuring up to injured or departed starters.
Only the season to come can answer the questions for certain. In the meantime, there are some big shoes to fill.