Defensive Continuity Is Key For Cross

April 9, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Two-thirds of the starting defensive line is gone, as is outside linebacker Steven Sylvester, and prospects are not bright for leading tackler Julian Burnett. His career may be over because of an injury sustained in the Sun Bowl.

Yet there is optimism among Georgia Tech defenders that they will be better this fall.

This is a matter of familiarity not only with coordinator Al Groh’s system but with each other. Halfway through spring practice, the Yellow Jackets see themselves playing on a string rather than as islands.

“We’ve gotten slightly better each year on defense, and we want to make a drastic step now,” said starting defensive end Izaan Cross, who will be a senior in the fall. “We’ve got a lot of people returning who have played a lot. We’re a little bigger up front. We know what Coach Groh expects from us, we have more team camaraderie.

“Less thinking, more playing, and communication ought to be a lot better. By this time, a lot of guys should know each other like the back of their hands.”

Without diving into statistics here, the Tech defense last fall was incrementally more effective in Groh’s second season on the Flats than in the first.

The Jackets will size up in the front, where T.J. Barnes figures to replace nose tackle Logan Walls, and at the other end, where Emmanuel Dieke is the leading candidate to take over for Jason Peters.

The secondary returns starting cornerbacks Rod Sweeting and Louis Young, and safety Isaiah Johnson is back as well.

Senior safety Rashaad Reid is moving on, but talented all-purpose man Jemea Thomas returns. Plus, Fred Holton, who was on track to help in a big way last season before rupturing his left Achilles’ tendon in the final summer scrimmage, is in the fold as well – although not yet at full speed.

“We’re going to play faster and communicate,” said sophomore outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu. “Isaiah is stepping up as a leader. He knows his assignments, and the safety controls everything. He’s calling the defense smartly.”

Perhaps that’s easy to say.

Truth is, it makes sense. There is not a single position on defense where the Jackets are likely to be forced to play someone who hasn’t already played at least in a reserve role.

Among linebackers, Attaochu, Daniel Drummond, Quayshawn Nealy, Malcolm Munroe and Brandon Watts all saw significant time last season, the first three chiefly as starters.

Even with that some newcomers may factor anyway, but only if they earn their way.

Inside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days, who redshirted last season, is off to a nice start, and Corey Dennis has made strides at safety after seeing special teams time as a freshman.

Defensive end Anthony Williams and D-lineman Shawn Greene are making impressions, as are Euclid Cummings and others.

“Freddie came back from his rehab, and he’s doing really well,” Cross said. “T.J.’s made a lot of big steps, gotten in better shape, lost some weight. Too tall [the 6-foot-6 Dieke) as well, Anthony Williams, Shawn Greene.”

Nearly everything seems to make more sense.

“I feel like it’s a lot easier mentally,” Cross explained. “I know what I need to do, and I have more of an inner drive to do everything correctly.”

Attaochu summarized: “Improvement is going to come . . . we know our assignments a lot better. I really believe we can get better. We have a great work ethic, and a lot of people who want to lead by example. We’re going to get there.”

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