Many Happy Returns

Sept. 26, 2010

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

The day after Christmas, known internationally as Boxing Day, has become synonymous in the U.S. with returns, where stores are over-run by those bringing back the slipper-socks and other unwanted gifts for something more valuable.

Jerrard Tarrant doesn’t need a special occasion to return things for something valuable, and he’s certainly not going to limit himself to one day in late December to make such returns. For the redshirt junior safety who doubles as punt returner, where last season he ranked third in the ACC and 13th in the nation, averaging 13.4 yards per return, every Saturday has the potential to be that day. Every opportunity is a chance to hit pay dirt.

“I try to,” he said. “On defense, every time that you get your hands on the ball you better make the best opportunity out of it because you don’t get to touch it often.”

He’s made the most of his opportunities. Just check out the “Last Time It Happened…” on page 39 of the Georgia Tech game notes. The returns section may as well be called the, “The Tarrant Return Counter.” Here’s how it read prior to Saturday’s game against N.C. State.

Interception Return for a Touchdown — Jan. 5, 2010, vs. Iowa(Orange Bowl), Jerrard Tarrant (40 yards) (Ricky Stanzi pass). Fumble Returnfor a Touchdown – Oct. 3, 2009 at Mississippi State (40 yards)(Anthony Dixon fumble), Jerrard Tarrant. Punt Return for a Touchdown – Sept. 10, 2009vs. Clemson, Jerrard Tarrant (85 yards).

The Interception return category will change for next week’s game at Wake Forest, to reflect Tarrant’s 33-yard return for a score against North Carolina State’s Russell Wilson. The pick-six came in the fourth quarter. It followed a Jackets score to cut what had been a double-digit lead seemingly all day to three points and brought the crowd at Bobby Dodd Stadium to life.

The play is one every defensive back dreams about.

So, what was Tarrant, thinking as he saw the pass floating toward him with open field in front of him?

“Touchdown,” he said and smiled. “I always wanted to dive into the end zone. Who doesn’t want to dive into the end zone?”

And about whom was Tarrant thinking during the runback and his dive toward the pylon on the left corner of the end zone? Perhaps visions of his boyhood idol Deion Sanders, who is smiling, winking and pointing as if to say, “My MAN!’

Try Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh.

Cut fantasy music (complete with sound of needle scratching across record). Al Groh? Seriously?

“On interceptions, we practice getting to the sideline and getting outside the numbers,” said Tarrant. “When I caught it I thought about Coach Groh and got straight outside of the numbers.”

The play not only rewarded Tarrant for paying attention to Groh on the field, but also to his attentiveness regarding opponent’s tendencies in the film room.

“Every time [Wilson] gets pressure, he doesn’t want to take a sack, so he’ll try to make a play by just throwing the ball up and letting the receiver try to make a play,” Tarrant said. “Once I saw him backing up I had a feeling he was going to throw the ball up. So I tried to stay between the two receivers on that side and just tried to make a play on the ball.”

Playing the ball is playing to Tarrant’s strength.

“[Tarrant] plays the ball very well in the air, he sees the ball well,” said Groh, who cited the interception as one of three positive plays made by the defense in 81 plays against State. “He certainly made an excellent play on that one.

“He’s come along nicely,” Groh continued. “That’s a big transition to make from playing on the corner to playing at safety. You have to see the entire field in a much different way. The techniques are different. You’re in charge of running the secondary. That’s a big transition, which he’s made nicely and is continuing to earn more playing time.”

Earned is the key word.

“You always see [Jerrard] working hard,” said senior ILB Brad Jefferson. “He’s a hard player.”

“He’s been trying to elevate his game, he’s working hard in practice,” agreed senior corner Mario Butler. “That’s where it all starts, in practice, trying to get better in practice. You don’t just get ready during the game.”

Butler sees Tarrant stepping into the role of playmaker in similar fashion to Morgan Burnett last season.

“That’s one thing you’ve got to have in the secondary,” he said. “Jerrard has been making plays and, as the weeks go on, he is going to be one of our big-play guys. He’s going to continue a ball-hawk. The mentality we’ve got to get as a secondary is to be ball-hawks.”

Should that mentality take, Tarrant, and the entire Yellow Jackets team could make one more big return — a return to the ACC Championship Game.

“We were in the same situation last year,” said Tarrant, referring to a Week Three loss at Miami. “Everybody knows what it takes, mentally and physically. I think we’ll be fine.”

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