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Sting Daily: A Stronger Secondary

July 29, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

There is a point by which you’ve heard enough Georgia Tech football players say in various ways that the team’s offseason energy level has been sky high in workouts, that enthusiasm is epic and that fall practice cannot get here soon enough that . . . you believe it’s more than annual cliché.

I’m there.

Rod Sweeting, the senior cornerback, pushed me past the threshold.

We’re sticking with him today rather than branching out, and we’ll go out of order here because the last Sunday before football season begins is not for over-thought, over-organized analysis. There is more than enough of that to come over the next five months or so.

What jumped out the other day, when Sweeting was one of several football players who took a few moments to meet writers and a goofball in a straw hat in The Edge, was the combination of one of his answers and the way his heart and animation rates seemed to jump while giving it. He added plenty of detail, too, and much of it was unsolicited.

Ken Sugiura, the AJC’s man whom I taught everything I know (obvious on occasions when he struggles), asked a question awkwardly. Gilbert (we learned years ago that is his legal name because he left one of his [huge] paychecks on somebody’s desk), learned that from me.

You know how a radio man might say to a player about to participate in something like a Super Bowl: “The big time. Huge event. Massive stadium. Great City. What do you think?” and then tilt the microphone in the player’s face?

This was one of those moments.

Gil, whom one would not cast as a radio man because you have to stay awake for that work, said something like, “What about strength gains?”

Rod looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I think the other Rod,’s McKenzie, had in fact nodded off.

So, after a Sweeting threw off a gaze that my wife would describe as befounded (bewildered/dumbfounded), Gil elaborated. He went long form (which he definitely learned from me), and Sweeting latched onto the point.

Then, he ran with it — like a horse.

Sweeting smiled, his eyes lit up, he wiggled a little bit in his chair, and then to those standing in a semi-circle around him he practically sang praises for newish director of player development John Sisk: “The new strength coach . . . he’s the best. He’s way better . . . the whole team is better at everything.”

Rod’s made massive gains. In recent testing, he upped his vertical jump to 40 inches. Before? His best was 35.

He and teammates alike were pretty amped, and this was not the first example heard about that kind of vibe.

“I was excited . . . I expected to get a 36 or a 37, but my first jump was a 38. My second was 40,” said the Luella High graduate. “That was the best on the team. The guys were happy for me.”

The “guys” got it going on.

From left to right and front to back, there are emerging themes as the countdown to Tech’s first football practice ticks down to Friday.

Players seem disproportionately optimistic relative to recent preseasons, and they keep talking about having made more speed and strength improvement than in recent off seasons.

Sweeting is a fine example. He has nicknamed the secondary, “The Go-gettas,” and he’s glad that safety Fred Holton is back in the mix after suffering an Achilles’ tendon injury shortly before last season, causing him to miss all of it.

“I’m going to say the secondary is going to be the strongest [part of the team]. The defense as a whole is going to be way better than last year,” he said. “This is going to be the third year with coach Groh, and we’re just excited. Everyone’s confident. I just see this season being a lot better than last year.”

The young man has a point.

He and fellow cornerback Louis Young, multi-man Jemea Thomas, safety Isaiah Johnson, Holton, youngster Jamal Golden and others give the Jackets depth like they haven’t had in the back in several years.

Here’s where you hope that Sweeting and “The Go-gettas,” can again surpass expectations and goals.

He thought he’d jump 36 or 37 inches and went 38 and then 40.

Asked whether he had measurable goals for the upcoming season, he mentioned a couple. “We want to lead the nation in interceptions,” Sweeting said. “I’m going to shoot for five. I’m capable of more than that, but I’m going to be reasonable.”

That was the only downer of the interview. Who wants reasonable?

It says here that this will be Georgia Tech’s best defense since 2004, when the Jackets were ranked No. 12 in the nation in total with 297.9 yards allowed per game. That was the only season in the last 20 where Tech surrendered less than 300 yards of total offense per game. Bet you don’t remember that Mansfield Wrotto was a starting D-tackle before spending his last two season on offense, where he’s spent time in the NFL.

The other starting defensive linemen were Joe Anoai, Travis Parker and Eric Henderson, linebackers Chris Reis, Gerris Wilkinson and KaMichael Hall, cornerbacks Kenny Scott and Reuben Houston and safeties Dawan Landry and James Butler.

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