Oct. 17, 2010
Next up: at Clemson, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN)
By Matt Winkeljohn
For the second time in three weeks, Georgia Tech’s had a “star” emerge from the depths.
At Wake Forest, former wide receiver-turned-defensive-back-and-then-again-wide receiver Correy Earls caught the game-winning pass with just 15 seconds left.
In Saturday’s much less harrowing 42-14 win over Middle Tennessee State, junior safety Jerrard Tarrant filled the role. Given the opponent and the margin, it was an off-Broadway deal relative to Earls’ earlier performance, but Tarrant’s two interceptions – each with a 30-yard return – set a tone.
The Jackets picked off four passes and recovered two MTSU fumbles. Maybe that was predictable. MTSU entered the game lagging the entire nation with a -9 turnover margin, a per-game ratio of 1.8 more turnovers than takeaways. Still, it was valuable.
Who’da thunk it?
Well, truth be told, defensive coordinator Al Groh and secondary coach Charles Kelly must’ve had hunches when they moved Tarrant from cornerback to safety in the offseason. Tarrant, after all, wasn’t a bad corner.
But his greatest tendency to change games came on plays where he was facing the ball rather than operating with his back to the opposing quarterback while dogging receivers. He returned one of his two interceptions for a touchdown as a sophomore yet in far fewer plays where he wasn’t actually defending the ball in the air he also returned two punts and a fumble for scores.
The young man has game-changing capabilities. So the coaching staff moved him into a spot where he’d be more likely to get those opportunities.
“He gave obvious evidence of that [Saturday]. He’s got a real good sense of the ball,” Groh said. “That’s one of the reasons that we chose to move him from corner to safety, where obviously everything is in front of him. We had seen he has a good sense of the ball, and we wanted to get him back there where he could see things.”
Tarrant played safety in high school, but that was in 2006, and the transition did not go smoothly at first.
Mario Edwards and Cooper Taylor started at the safety spots in the season opener. Taylor was replaced by freshman Isaiah Johnson in the starting lineup for the next three games, and as Tarrant made more plays in his opportunities, his opportunities grew, and eventually he moved into the starting lineup in Johnson’s place.
In that game, Sept. 25 against N.C. State, he returned an interception for a touchdown.
At safety, he plays, “a lot more zone where I can read and look at the quarterback and kind of read the routes,” Tarrant said.
It took a while, however, for Tarrant to become comfortable facing the action.
“When you change positions things look different. At safety, you have a little more responsibility than at corner,” Kelly said. “Corner, skill-wise sometimes is a lot harder, but at the same time at safety it takes a lot of accumulated reps for everything to slow and the vision to get there.
“He hadn’t done that since high school. Now, you got to make all the calls, you’ve got to recognize formations . . . do all that plus when the ball is snapped play the ball.”
Tarrant applied all that he’s learned in a hurry against MTSU. He had an interception in each of the first two quarters, and a potential third was wiped out in the third quarter by penalty.
“The first pick, I rolled down into a cover three look, and . . . I sat down [in a zone as MTSU QB Dwight Dasher was rushed into a poor throw],” Tarrant said. “Dasher always looks at his receiver the whole time so I just kind of read him. The second one, we ran a corner blitz and it worked out the same way in practice Thursday as it did in the game.”
Kelly is not surprised that Tarrant has caught on; he had skills aplenty, and just needed time. Now, he has three of the Jackets’ six interceptions this season.
“When you get accumulated reps, you get better at it and I think that’s what’s happened,” Kelly said. “It was a little bit gradual, but the thing than I did see the whole time is he was very competitive. He gradually picked it up. We’ve still got a lot to work on, but he’s got a knack for the ball and he is starting to understand the defense better.
“You can do that all you want on the board, but until you play, the game doesn’t slow down for you.”
It’s a bit slower now for Tarrant.
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