April 13, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
As construction continues on the 2016 Georgia Tech football team, the Yellow Jackets are keenly focused on several areas that last season were problematic and fairly easy to diagnose and one that isn’t so easy to gauge, explain or even build.
Chemistry is the greatest intangible in team sport, yet even with its multiple definitions the Jackets are just as intent on fine tuning their “it” factor as they are brushing up their pass rush and pass protection, fleshing out new pecking orders in the backfield and at wide receiver and installing a new secondary.
There seems no doubt that the 2015 Jackets (3-9) lacked a near magic that permeated the squad that went 11-3 and won the Orange Bowl in 2014.
As much as anything, the Jackets were without the ties that bind from within. They lacked the great glue. It begins with leadership in the player ranks, and a peer-to-peer accountability that’s difficult to force.
“I think that when you have what you’re talking about, if you have pretty good talent, you’re tough to beat,” said defensive coordinator Ted Roof. “If you have great talent, you’re almost impossible to beat. If you have it the other way, talent without that, you call those teams underachievers.
“That’s exactly what it was [in 2014]. That was the strongest thing we had. We had good players, but we had a great locker room and player-to-player accountability. Any time you have that, where a guy’s thinking, ‘I can’t let the next guy down,’ that’s the most powerful type of pressure there is.”
The Jackets have a feeling they’re getting back on the leadership track.
As defensive players and Roof met with media Monday, fourth-year junior Corey Griffin — who played in 11 games last season and started one — was confident.
He’s has been working at strong safety alongside sophomore A.J. Gray at free, and even though coaches during spring practice have sounded alarms about various issues under development, Griffin rang a rising bell.
“More people are more outspoken. I’m more outspoken . . . this year I’m totally taking on that role because last year wasn’t fun at all,” he said. “It’s not just me. It’s PJ [Paul Davis, all the guys as a defensive unit, the offensive unit . . . nobody wants to go back down that road so you have a lot of different guys stepping up.
“We’re coming together as a team. I think last year we were more individual. After we lost to Notre Dame, you could see guys humping their heads over and not as focused, or all in. This year, our team slogan is, “Put in.” That means every day, every rep give it all you’ve got. We’ve bought into it.”
Tech’s top defender, tackle Adam Gotsis, will go in the NFL draft in a few weeks, and the Jackets must replace their entire starting secondary.
There are signs, though, that Tech is moving back to the same page.
Sophomore defensive tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson said senior tackle/end Patrick Gamble is taking charge of the front four. Gamble, Francis Kallon, KeShun Freeman redshirt freshman Brentavious Glanton and others are busy on the defensive line competing against and caring for one another.
“We’re all family at the end of the day, but we’re all pushing each other at the same time,” said Cerge-Henderson. “When somebody does something bad, we tell them, ‘You could have done this.’ Going through one-on-ones, even if I win a rep I turn to Pat and learn from him, or Francis or Brentavious. It’s really good.
“I feel like we all have equally taken strides, from Pat becoming more of a leader to me becoming more of a follower or Brentavious becoming a follower.”
Perhaps leadership roles cannot be forced, but they can be encouraged.
In a best-case scenario, leaders emerge naturally and a team grows collectively from within. This organic model does not always happen, though, and coaches play more of a hands-on role in shaping hierarchy some seasons vs. others.
“As coaches you teach leadership and develop leaders and put them in position to lead,” Roof said. “But sometimes, if the guys that coaches identify as leaders aren’t the ones that the players see as leaders there can be a disconnect. That’s kind of a slippery slope, but . . . leadership is critical in any organization.
“As far as nudging guys, yeah, I think you can nudge them. If you shove them out there and they’re not ready you set them up for failure. There’s a fine line between giving guys opportunities to do that . . . as opposed to just shoving guys out there that maybe their teammates don’t see as leaders.”
April is too early to say with certainty who this year’s leaders will be, and there will be different kinds of leaders. There are the rah-rah types, those who lead by virtue of their work ethic and practice pace without being overly vocal and more.
Roof sees signs, too, but he’s not yet about to anoint anyone.
“The chemistry seems to be coming together,” he said. “All of them have my attention every day. As far as establishing themselves, it’s a melting pot. Pat Gamble has established himself. KeShun has established himself, but at the same time there’s competition at all those positions and that helps everybody…
“[Corey is] is a guy who cares a tremendous amount. The team knows that he cares a tremendous amount, and I think that he’s earned a lot of respect. He’s got to improve and get a lot better, but he’s a guy who’s taken strides in that respect.”
Griffin sounds up to the task, in part because he said, “Nobody wants to go back and have that happen, ever. That definitely left a bad taste in our mouth, and that’s our main focus: to get back where we were in ’14, and do better.”
Coaches are mindful of the reality that forcing leadership roles is different than encouraging them, and that it’s important to empower potential leaders so that they can grow into those roles rather than be forced into them.
This is probably the most important growth aspect of the team.
“There’s some that come here and they’re ready to do that whether it’s within their own position or within their own class,” Roof said. “That’s one of the things you look for in recruiting.
“I think it’s a combination. I don’t think you can say it’s only grown or nudged. When we have a player-led team, that’s the best kind of locker room. If you don’t have a player-led team, you have to evaluate that as a coach and as a staff . . . In the end, the best teams that I’ve been around have policed themselves.”