May 28, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The second Ted Roof era opened to considerable success as Georgia Tech improved across the board defensively in 2013, and if the second-year coordinator’s troops are to ratchet up their performance even more in 2014 they’re going to have to do it with new faces and players in new places.
Tech’s post-spring defensive depth chart highlights new starters in three of four defensive line spots, and a secondary that will look a good bit different as well.
The Yellow Jackets ranked No. 27 nationally in total defense while allowing 360.2 yards per game, and finished No. 29 in scoring defense (22.8 points per game).
Although the depth chart is not set in stone, and changes are possible and even likely after fall practice begins, it is easy to see with even a quick glance that Tech will feature not only a new look with a nickel as the “base” defense, but at many positions.
Here’s what the Jackets will look like when practice begins anew in a little more than two months:
Roof, the former Jacket linebacker (1982-`85) who first served as Tech’s defensive coordinator from ’98-`01, and defensive line coach Mike Pelton will be busiest in fall practice sorting out who’s who up front.
Junior Adam Gotsis will be the only returning starter in the front four, and the big-boned Australian figures to be an anchor up front both because of his experience and his production.
While starting all 13 games last season, Gotsis was in on 38 tackles and more importantly was a menace in opposing backfields. His 14.5 tackles for lost yardage and 5.5 sacks both ranked second on the team to totals posted by departed end Jeremiah Attaochu.
“Adam is the main guy who’s played for us coming back, so guys look to him,” Pelton said. “He and Shawn Green, they realize it’s their room now.”
Redshirt sophomores Francis Kallon and Pat Gamble are listed as the backup tackles for now. They have work ahead, and the Jackets have no new defensive tackles joining the team as freshmen unless players change positions.
“You worry about depth . . . you wonder about the inside depth,” Pelton said. “Francis Kallon really hasn’t progressed yet to the point where we need him to . . . and Pat missed 80 percent of the spring (Gamble was a passenger in a car accident that left him sidelined most of spring practice). He came back for the spring game and recovered two fumbles. He played decent on just a couple days of practice.
“With him adding the weight we wanted him to add, it was going to be interesting to see if he could do it over a long period of time. He showed flashes.”
Jimmie Kitchens, who also battled injury in the spring, may also factor in the Tech interior.
There are even more moving parts on the flanks.
Attaochu, who set the Tech record with 31.5 career sacks as an outside linebacker/defensive end, is a San Diego Charger now, and fellow end Emmanuel Dieke’s elibility expired as well. Dieke signed as a free agent with the New York Giants.
The Jackets were dealt a blow late in the spring when former linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days was declared academically ineligible to play this fall. Roof expected him to move into Attaochu’s rush end spot.
Now, Tech is left with two players who have not yet appeared in a college game in redshirt sophomore Roderick Rook-Chungong or true freshman KeShun Freeman at rush end, and two who haven’t started at the other end in sophomore Tyler Stargel and senior Nick Menocal.
Freeman enrolled early and had a productive spring. He needs to eat. At 6-feet-4, and about 230 pounds, Freeman would benefit from added heft.
“KeShun was a guy who came in and in every scrimmage he did something that made you notice him,” Pelton said. “If he can build off the spring, and get in the weight room it’s going to be interesting. He’s got a chance for some playing time.”
Although Kenderius Whitehead is not on the Jackets’ depth chart, coaches fully believe that the former Georgia Military College star will end up in the mix at end. He was a junior college first team All-America selection last fall with 19.5 tackles for lost yardage and 7.5 sacks. Whitehead, who originally signed with NC State, will be a sophomore.
Tech figures to spend much of the time aligned with four down linemen, two linebackers and five backs.
One of those linebackers has been around quite a while.
With 39 career games played and 29 starts, senior Quayshawn Nealy has learned his way around. His 66 total tackles last season tied for second on the team, and he also had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Nealy closed his junior season strong when he had a season-high 10 tackles against Georgia, and then nine more against Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl.
Given his size (6-1, 236) and that of fellow projected starter Tyler Marcodes (6-4, 243), the Jackets have some meat in the middle of the defense.
Sophomore Paul Davis (5-11, 218) may not illicit a similar reaction upon first glance, but that kind of eye test hardly applies. He led all non-starters with 41 combined tackles in his true season, and flies around the with such purpose and intensity that he figures to find his way onto the field frequently next fall.
Senior Tremayne McNair is also in the two-deep at linebacker.
Johnson started three games as a true freshman, and then 26 straight as a sophomore and a junior before suffering a knee injury in preparation for the Sun Bowl following the 2012 season. That kept him out last season, although he practiced much of the fall.
All the strong safety did as a junior (in 2012) was lead the team with 87 combined tackles. Johnson added 78 tackles as a sophomore, and 46 as a freshman so he’s spent plenty of time around ball carriers. He also has five career interceptions and five fumble recoveries. He returned a fumble for a touchdown in the spring game.
“I think I’m pretty much back on track. At this point, it doesn’t even seem like I was gone,” Johnson said. “I feel good about the defense . . . it’s our second year under Coach Roof, and as time goes by you get to feel more comfortable under a new system.”
Golden suffered a shoulder injury in the third game last season, and needed surgery. The NCAA has granted him another year of eligibility so he’s considered a football junior in this, his fourth season.
While his range is welcome at free safety (he had three interceptions in 2012), Golden’s impact on the return game may be even greater. He averaged a school-record 28.3 yards per kickoff return as a sophomore, when he returned two for touchdowns. He also returned punts at a 14.6-yard clip.
If the D.J. White who showed up in the Music City Bowl returns, Tech can look forward to a special cornerback this fall. White started nine games last season, and Ole Miss remembered him after he rang up 13 tackles, forced two fumbles and picked off a pass.
Jemea Thomas is with the NFL’s New England Patriots now, and the multi-tasking defensive back left perhaps as big a hole in Tech’s defense as any departed player.
It’s not like the Jackets wills start from scratch there, however.
Smith started the last 10 games last season after Golden went out, and has played in 27. Noble started four times in 2014 and has played in 26 games.