Aug. 19, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Media guide listings are like TV cameras — they add 10 pounds to whoever they’re focused on.
For Izaan Cross, however, the 292 pounds being credited to his 6-4 frame actually may be closer to accurate than is usually the case.
The defensive end from Flowery Branch (Flowery Branch High School) is certainly a lot lighter entering his junior season than he was at the end of his sophomore season.
Regardless of what the books say, head coach Paul Johnson’s pointing out Cross’ fitness spoke volumes about Cross and his commitment to turning things around in 2011.
“I’ve had a lot of dates with [director of player development] Neal Peduzzi,” Cross said. “I’ve been trying to do as much endurance work as I can. 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 disappeared. I took that to heart and have been trying to get better.”
Cross ranked second among Yellow Jackets defensive ends with 41 tackles (22 solo) — only Jason Peters had more — while his 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks led the group (1.5 more TFLs and 1.0 more sacks than Peters). He’d like to step up the attack and be more of a presence in the backfield.
“That’s one of our main objectives,” Cross said. “We didn’t have as many sacks all of last season combined (four) as Derrick Morgan had two years ago himself (13). Between the three of us, I thought we should be able to get at least that. It’s a little bit harder to get sacks in the 3-4 defense because I can’t just line up and speed rush, but that is definitely one of my main objectives.” Another objective will be simply staying on the field.
“I want to be able to play at a high level every snap,” he said. “I’m definitely still going to need a rest after a couple of plays but I feel like I’ll be able to stay out there a little longer than I did last year.”
His presence will be an important factor in the defense’s improvement from 2010, when the Jackets finished ninth in the ACC in total defense (371.6 ypg) and eighth in stopping the run (169.7 ypg).
Familiarity with the 3-4 will go a long way.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Cross said. “I know a majority of the plays going in. So I don’t necessarily have to worry, be up all night trying to figure it out, not knowing what [defensive coordinator Al Groh] expects of me. So it’s just a lot better. I’m more experienced. I can come faster at what I’m doing.”
Cross admitted that not picking up the defense faster was as much a matter of who was playing the roles.
“We’re used to having guys like Derrick Morgan,” he said. “He leaves. Who’s making the sacks now? It was hard to transform when we didn’t have those all-stars that could bail us out at times. One of us had to come from within to do that, and we didn’t have that last year.
“It was definitely harder,” he added. “Then it didn’t help having a new scheme. We had to learn a completely different defense. We were kind of slow and timid and didn’t necessarily know what Coach Groh wanted at all times. But I feel like we will be a lot better this year. Now that I’ve got the hang of it, I’m all good.”
He’s tired of hearing about 2010 and about what Tech didn’t do and is especially eager to even some scores from last year.
His eyes lit up at mention of the Sept. 17 rematch with Kansas at Grant Field, but he quickly gathered himself.
“I’m not going to say anything about that,” he said, with a laugh. “I don’t want to make headlines. But I’m excited to play them again.”
Cross won’t have to talk to make headlines. He already has people talking for him. He was named one of 35 players on the preseason watch list for the Ted Hendricks Award, given to the nation’s top college defensive end.
Having name recognition is nice, but getting Georgia Tech greater name recognition means a lot more.
“I see a lot more people who care,” he said. “We take last year personally. 6-7 is not what we’re used to here at Georgia Tech. So revenge is definitely a great motivator and we want to get back to where we were a couple of years ago.”