#TGW: Playing in the Dirt Again

March 28, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

– While it may not qualify as irony, the evolution of football is pushing Jabari Hunt-Days back in time, at least for now, and he doesn’t seem to mind standing upright less frequently if it will get him on the football field more often.

His move from linebacker to end looks like, on paper, the transition that Jeremiah Attaochu made one year earlier in Ted Roof’s first season back as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator. That worked quite well.

So, for spring practice, Hunt-Days has said, “sign me up,” for the same.

He left the field often in nickel package (five defensive backs) situations last season as Roof transitioned the Yellow Jackets from a 3-4 philosophy to a 4-3 base. His combined tackles and assists dropped from 84 as a freshman in 2012 to 45 in ’13 in great measure because Hunt-Days was on the field less.

“I’m in favor of doing whatever the team needs me to do,” said the rising redshirt junior from Marietta and Hillgrove High. “Coach Roof was first to discuss it with me, and then I sat down with [defensive line coach Mike Pelton] and we discussed how we’re going to go about this.”

Couple this:

# Many offenses throw more often and/or scatter players to create more space so that nickel [and dime] packages are becoming the new normal.

With this:

# Starting defensive ends Attaochu and Emmanuel Dieke have departed along with reserves Chris Crenshaw and Anthony Williams.

And this came together like dominoes falling in sequence.

Hunt-Days frequently was the LB out when an extra DB went in because, like Attaochu before him, pass coverage and working in space were not his strengths.

So, as Roof said some 600 of the 750 or so snaps that his defense played last year mandated nickel (or dime) deployments, a thought bubble filled up: how can we get Hunt-Days on the field more, yet keep him in closed quarters?

Easy; take a look at him in the rush end spot, where Attaouchu racked up 16 tackles for lost yardage and 12.5 sacks last season to become Tech’s all-time leading quarterback dropper.

“It’s certainly an experiment,” Roof said. “We’re trying to get the right group on the field, and in the spring there’s a chance to evaluate when there’s not a game looming. In the nickel package it’s a way for him to get on the field a little more.

“We’re giving a guy with some experience and ability a chance to show what he can do at that position. He’s long, he was a good blitzer for us. We only got two linebackers on the field in [the nickel] and when you go with three down in the nickel he can understand a couple positions.”

So there is that, too: Tech could possibly toggle in the nickel with three down linemen and three linebackers to nickel with four down linemen and two linebackers without having to change personnel.

In the first alignment, Hunt-Days would be a rush linebacker, in the latter he would be a rush end.

The evolution of football, which seemed to frustrate former defensive coordinator Al Groh in his final half season on The Flats as he fussed about offenses creating more advantages by spreading the field with formations and personnel, may push Hunt-Days backward in a way.

He could end up not playing more in the new-fangled spaces but rather more up-close-and-personal than as a middle linebacker.

At 6-feet-3, 249 pounds, Hunt-Days has warring tools, yet it’s a different game up front.

“Right now I’d have to say putting my hand in the dirt [is the biggest difference]. It’s more about hands and speed and quickness,” he said. “At D-end … it’s all about getting off the edge, being low, getting under the tackle, and using your power.

“There are seldom reads to make. At the defensive end position, you’re containing [outside against the run game] and if you see the quarterback drop back you’ve got to go get him. It’s really simple in that aspect.”

There is no guarantee this change will stick. As Roof said, it is an experiment.

The last one like it, however, went so well that chances are coaches may be particularly patient. Attaochu had just two sacks through Tech’s first seven games, and then 10.5 over the final six.

He figured it out, and may soon be drafted in the first few rounds by an NFL team.

“It’s really amazing how much better Jerry got. If you put on Game One and Game 13, it’s so different. He got so much better,” Roof said. “That’s odd for a senior to have those kinds of jumps. Usually, you have them in your earlier years. It was a testament to how Jerry handled it, and the work he put into it.”

Attaochu is assisting even as he’s been working out elsewhere while preparing for today’s Pro Day back at Tech and other NFL tryouts.

“I talked to Jeremiah today. Jeremiah is like a big brother to me,” Hunt-Days said. “We talk daily, for the most part. He’s been helping me, giving me tips. The few that he’s given me so far have helped.

“Speed and violence, that’s what he says. Stay low, use your hands and don’t let the [offensive] tackle get into my body first. Go get the quarterback.”

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