Communication is part of it Zamari Waltons Cornerback job, but in five years with the Georgia Tech program, he’d never felt compelled to use his voice like that.
Ahead of Tech’s defense unit meeting Tuesday morning, the redshirt junior stepped forward unprompted. Since Saturday, the feelings bubbled in him.
After the Yellow Jackets lost to Ole Miss, he knew his group had worked too hard to lose confidence. They had too much talent to let doubt overwhelm their psyches. And they had too much time to question their goals, their abilities, or their confidence.
What followed was a passionate sermon from this head coach GeoffCollins gave “poignant, powerful, positive messages” to his teammates. If any players were still shaking the cobwebs from a 7:30 a.m. meeting, Walton’s words would quickly rouse them.
“I felt like I had to say something to the team. We just want to make sure we keep our heads up. It’s still early in the season. We are still the defense of the “dark side”. We will be back. We’ll get some dubs for Tech,” recalled Walton, who recorded a career-high eight tackles against Ole Miss.
He begged his teammates to devote the urgency of a Saturday to morning practice. And according to his head coach, they responded.
“When you have a disappointing performance, you’re curious about the team’s mindset and behavior when it comes to the first practice session of the week,” Collins said. “[They] got up and set the tone for the practice with their actions and words, set the tone for the week and we had two really good days of practice.”
Florida native Zamari Walton returns to his native Sunshine State on Saturday when Georgia Tech meets UCF
Walton had already planned to laser focus Saturday’s game against 2-1 UCF (4 p.m. ET, Legends Sports’ Georgia Tech Sports Network). The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder grew up in Melbourne, Fla. 70 miles outside of Orlando. He has more than 20 family and friends planning to see him at FBC Mortgage Stadium. Arranging free tickets for his teammates had become a temporary side hustle in Georgia Tech’s locker room (unfortunately, Walton’s most famous relative won’t be there — he learned a few years ago that he’s a second cousin to Brooklyn Nets All-Star Kevin Durant is through his mother’s grandmother).
Walton even made back-to-back days of unofficial visits to Georgia Tech and UCF during the spring of his junior year of high school.
UCF, he said, “was actually one of my best schools. I’m just trying to come back and be the hometown hero. I was happy about that, but Georgia Tech overruled that.”
“I’ve been thinking about this all offseason,” he added.
Walton had more pressing concerns during the offseason. When a positional group loses the majority of its starters from the previous year, it’s only natural to typify that group as a weakness to start the season. In 2022, Georgia Tech Secondary had to replace three starters and one nickel-back who had combined for 127 career starts. For Walton, the Yellow Jackets’ only returning starter, getting his unit into shape was a tremendous strain.
Tech signed five defenders from the transfer portal. They welcomed three true newcomers. Returning players would compete for roles. It could have made for a tricky dynamic. Depending on personality, competition can poison chemistry as well as encourage it.
Walton knew he had to take a leading role in forging bonds with his defenders. A three-year starter, his voice and example would carry weight.
According to Collins, he handled it expertly.
“I think it’s the tightest secondary we’ve had since we’ve been here. Thanks to Zamari,” said Collins, who also praised redshirt juniors Myles Sims, Derrik Allen and jaylon king for their role in construction chemistry.
Walton was one of three high school seniors to represent Georgia Tech at the 2022 ACC Kickoff in July
Walton says the secondary also benefited from another voice in the room: Travares Tillmanthe Yellow Jackets’ new defensive tackle coach and two-time All-ACC cornerback at Tech (1996-99).
“He’s one of the real guys in the coaching business,” Walton said. “He knows what matters. He has the pride. He was where we want to be. He played in the league. Anything we want to do, he’s done. It amplifies everything.”
Tillman, on the other hand, has found a player who has made a strong mark with his habits.
“He’s really stable in the way he approaches training, the way he prepares for training. In the training room, in the weight room – he’s always been a serious guy. And that’s how he brings it to the field,” Tillman said.
The cohesion of the secondary has also prompted an immediate improvement in an area that was a sore spot for them last season. In three games, the Yellow Jackets have already surpassed their all-year interception total (4) (3).
That performance might sound hollow given Tech’s 1-2 record. But as Walton assured his teammates on Tuesday, they still have all their goals ahead of them. They know their upper limit when realizing their potential.
By the end of Saturday, Zamari Walton will be hoping to watch the scoreboard at FBC Mortgage Stadium, confident that nothing more needs to be said.