Aug. 8, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
I’m not sure how much Izaan Cross weighs, but he’s been listed at 292 pounds recently and that might be on the high side. In this anecdote there may be cause for optimism about Georgia Tech’s defense.
To wit: What you see on paper may not be as good as what you’ll get on the field. The Tech defensive end is clearly leaner than he was last year, and that’s just one reason the Yellow Jackets might well be demonstrably better on that side of the ball this season than last.
It’s one thing to note that head coach Paul Johnson has taken notice of his leaner, meaner pass rusher, mentioning it both to Cross and the media.
More importantly, Cross’ move to improve appears to be part of a systemic upgrade. Moving from the back to the front, here’s why I think what I think:
# Tech will not have a single returning starter in the secondary this season, and that might concern you, but the Jackets will be better back there. Johnson has said – and it’s not hard to see – that this group of defensive backs may be the most athletic in his now four seasons as head coach.
I’m thinkingTech doubles its interception total of last season (eight), although the combination of DBs Rod Sweeting, Louis Young, Michael Peterson, Isaiah Johnson, Jemea Thomas, Rashaad Reid, Fred Holton and others will have help in making this happen.
(I’ll explain more later.)
Young and Sweeting may give Tech one of its best cornerback combinations in many years. Johnson has fantastic ball instincts at safety, and played some as a true freshman. Thomas played a good bit as a true freshman in 2009, and redshirted last season.
# Linebackers Julian Burnett, who led the Jackets in tackles last season despite starting just eight of 13 games, and Steven Sylvester are the two returnees. Burnett is a wrecking machine inside. Sylvester is supremely intelligent outside, and had 10.5 tackles for lost yardage last season.
Sophomore Jeremiah Attachou will almost certainly start in the other outside spot, and if you didn’t notice his potential as a true freshman last year, you weren’t paying attention at all. Brandon Watts, who started inside early last season, may help outside as well.
The other inside spot is TBD, with former B-back Jon Drummond, redshirt freshman Quayshawn Neal of spring game fame and B.J. Machen in the mix.
# Cross figures to headline the defensive line, where all starters return. This was admittedly a low-ebb group a year ago, but part of that lies in the fact that defensive coordinator Al Groh’s system is set up more so than many for linebackers to steal thunder.
Cross could be the lynchpin. If he can become such a threat that opposing offensive lines have to tilt their blocking schemes, everybody else in the front seven will benefit. In passing situations, an improved rush will flush the ball out sooner, leading to more picks and incomplete passes.
“I’ve been trying to do as much endurance work as I can,” Cross said. “That’s one thing I wanted to improve from last year. [Defensive line coach Andy] McCollum said last year I looked good for three plays and then I’d disappear. I took that to heart and have been trying to get better.
“We didn’t even have as many sacks all of last season combined as Derrick Morgan had two years ago himself (13). Between . . . us, I thought we should be able to get at least that.”
# Finally, the Jackets better understand Groh’s defense now than they did. Sometimes, that’s over-stated, but this isn’t: Groh likely better understands now what his defenders do well, and where they need to hide weaknesses.
I’d throw in more comments from players, but with two-a-day practices having begun Monday (the Jackets will go twice again on Wednesday), interviews weren’t until about 7 p.m.
So I’ll have more on defense in Wednesday’s Sting Daily, with comments from Groh and some defenders, specifically – I hope – Young and Attachou.
While I’ve got you, I had a long conversation Saturday night with a fellow a few years older than me who talked at length about having played football in the mid-1970s at Georgia Military Academy in Military with eventual Tech football-baseball player Gary Hardie.
I looked up some history on Hardie, and found that he was indeed a backup quarterback (1976-’77-’78) and was drafted by Major League Baseball teams both out of high school and after three seasons at Tech.
His minor league career was shortened, I was told, by an odd farm accident that I won’t recount here for lack of being certain about it.
Can you help me find Gary Hardie?
If you can, please e-mail email@example.com Until we meet again . . .