April 14, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
It wasn’t coincidence that Georgia Tech’s season-ending four-game winning streak in 2016 came on the strength of a revitalized defense.
Over those four games, Georgia Tech forced 10 turnovers, including seven interceptions, and scored 41 points off those takeaways. That was one more turnover, three more picks and 27 more points off giveaways than the Yellow Jackets’ defense recorded over the first nine games. They also tallied 10 sacks, with three multi-sack games (a season-high five at Virginia Tech, three vs. Virginia, two vs. Kentucky), over the final four contests after managing just eight sacks and one two-sack game over the first nine.
So what does that mean to this year’s group?
“We try not to live in the past,” said junior safety A.J. Gray, who had 72 tackles (55 solo) and 3.5 tackles for loss last season, which was 51 more tackles than he notched as a freshman in 2015. “We’re just going to start over and take it from day one. I’m expecting big things out of us this year.”
High expectations abound throughout the defense this spring.
Last season’s defensive charge makes for a good starting point and gives the unit incentive. That’s important with the potential leadership vacuum caused by the graduation of leaders like linebacker P.J. Davis, and defensive linemen Patrick Gamble and Rod Rook-Chungong.
“That was a maybe underrated, under-noticed part of our defense last year, the leadership of Pat, and P.J. and Rook, Chase Alford, all those guys,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said this week. “That does leave a vacuum and it’s up to the guys coming back to be able to [fill those leadership roles]. There are some guys that have played a lot of football. A lot of guys are trying to step up. But it’s got to be a consistent step-up. It can’t be seven days we’re up and we’re rolling and one day we’re not. There’s got to be some consistency with the leadership. That’s something that we’re trying to develop. Our guys are working, we’re working at it as coaches. It’s a work in progress.”
“Leadership is not just about cheering. It’s about what are you going to do when times are tough? What are you going to do right now? Who are the guys that are going to step up? We’re waiting to see who those guys are,” said safeties coach Andy McCollum. “We know who we think they should be. In my group, I expect Corey (Griffin), I expect Lawrence Austin, I expect Lance Austin. Up front, (Antonio) Simmons, KeShun (Freeman). Brant Mitchell has played in a lot of games, Step Durham has played a lot of games. I expect A.J. Gray. He’s a year older. So you’ve got some guys that have played in some games. Now it’s got to be that their game goes to another level.
“Nobody here is satisfied with anything a year ago,” McCollum added. “We have to find ways that we take it to another level. That’s day-by-day working to get better and those guys have to come out every day and set the example by how they practice, how they work individual, how they tackle, how they scrimmage on Saturdays. So their play’s got to dictate their leadership.”
Mitchell found it “weird” to suddenly find himself in the leadership role but that was based more on getting used to the speed of his career as a student-athlete passing him by than opposing runners.
“It seems like yesterday, I was just one of those guys coming in but it’s good to be in this position, trying to help the younger guys pick up on the schemes we’re running, helping them develop and develop myself as well,” said Mitchell, whose 71 tackles (39 solo) as a sophomore nearly doubled his freshman total. “As the years go on, the longer you spend in a program, the more experience you get seeing the offense. Things are starting to slow down a lot more and you really get to understand what the coaches are trying to tell you. I feel like I’m starting to catch on a lot better. But I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
McCollum believes that the hunger among the defense will lift the entire unit. It’s certainly going to determine who gets the chance to make plays.
“It’s like I tell them every day, `We’ve got a lot to improve on from a year ago’ if they want to be great players,” he said. “It’s like I tell them, `Everybody in America can be average. Everybody that woke up this morning is average. So if you want to be average, go out there and be average. Nobody’ll stop you from doing that.’ We want to go out every day and see how much better we can get on the details and the fundamentals.”
Sophomore lineman Brandon Adams, who made seven stops in nine games as a freshman has high aspirations for 2017. He’s trying to follow Gamble’s lead from last season.
“Pat was a real good leader. What I got from Pat is to just keep pushing through,” said Adams. “Pat played the whole season with the injury and so he showed me how to keep pushing through difficult circumstances.”
He showed his commitment by pushing through a rigid offseason training program to lose weight that saw him drop in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 pounds — he’s listed at 349 but is looking to get down to around 315, 310. He’s also committed to a healthier diet and lifestyle. He felt a difference in the first intersquad scrimmage of the spring last Saturday.
“I didn’t feel as winded, so that allowed me to keep going back and keep doing my job, making plays whenever they came to me,” he said. “The most change I’ve seen is in my motor, running around, flying to the ball. I’m not as winded as I was last year. So I can just run.”
That flying to the ball is something the entire defense wants to emulate from last season’s leaders, like Davis.
“Everybody that saw P.J. play knew that he was going to fly around and hit somebody,” Mitchell said. “That’s definitely something we miss, just his energy.
“We’re working. We’ve got a lot of guys in the rotation right now. Everybody’s trying to show what they’ve got and we’re just working to get better right now.”
“It’s hard but it takes the whole team, everybody coming together and playing as one,” Mitchell added. “It takes all 11 guys. That’s a big thing with us. We have really good chemistry. I think that started last year. In the offseason, we tried to get closer as a team and I think if we can come together, we can fill all the spots that need to be filled.”
It’s wide open competition and open to all.
“It’s an opportunity for some young ones,” said McCollum. “We need to build depth. We have some guys coming back and the guys coming back have got to take it up another step. We lost some good leadership so we have to figure out who those leaders are going to be. It’s like anything. Every day they come out, they have to find that focus on what they’re getting better at today. Whether you’re senior, junior, sophomore or freshman, it doesn’t matter. You have to focus on it.”