Dec. 5, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
– Much has been made of the way B-backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days banded together last week to batter Georgia with volume and potency, yet the Georgia Tech defense will roll out its own band of brothers in Saturday night’s ACC Championship Game against Florida State.
Laskey (140 yards, three touchdowns) and Days (94 yards) were tough on the Bulldogs while combining for 42 carries as the Jackets rushed for 399 yards.
There is plenty of evidence, too, that the Yellow Jackets’ much-improved defense can share the load, and it’s not just front-line players doing the heavy lifting.
Tech is better at slowing folks down for sake of several mid-season defensive adjustments noted below, an explosion in takeaways and a proclivity for stealing the ball and scoring it, the growth of players like freshman end KeShun Freeman and junior linebacker/end Tyler Marcordes, and the gradual return to form of safeties Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden – who were rusty early after missing last season – and even stalwart senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy.
Substantial contributions are being made on that side of the ball by many, including players whom fans might not be counting upon.
At Georgia, reserve linebacker Anthony Harrell was in on four combined tackles and assists (and returned the key kickoff that set up the game-tying sequence as regulation expired). He had 12 tackles in Tech’s first 11 games.
Backup linebacker Tremayne McNair not only pitched in three tackles, but a sack. He had four tackles in Tech’s first 11 games. Sub linebacker Beau Hankins has 10 tackles on the season, and three came in Athens. Defensive back Domonique Noble played in just his fifth game of the fall and contributed.
Nealy, whose 84 combined tackles and assists trail only the 97 of sophomore linebacker Paul Davis, doesn’t seem surprised.
“We lost some great players, no doubt,” he said. “At the same time, we brought in some great players. It took them a while to get going, but now they’re playing like veterans.
“They’re really playing with a chip on their shoulders.”
Some of these numbers came in special teams play, but there’s no denying that the Jackets have seen multiple players step from the shadows this season.
Freshman defensive end Antonio Simmons made four of his season’s total of five tackles a week earlier against Clemson.
“It was huge,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said of the importance of Tech’s less-heralded subs not only playing but making impact plays. “You look up and it’s Tremayne McNair, Domonique Noble, Anthony Harrell … it’s a lot of guys who haven’t played a lot of football this year.
“That’s what happens when the strength of the team is the team. The next guy steps up. It’s not like they had 100 reps last week in practice; they had minimal reps, actually. It’s a lesson to the rest of our football team: you’ve got to prepare to be the guy because you’re one play from being the guy and everybody is counting on you.”
Speaking Of Counting . . .
Tech’s defensive improvement is owed to a long list of explanations.
Before diving deeper into them, some numbers:
# In the Jackets’ first four ACC games (2-2), they allowed an average of 432 yards of total offense, 24.8 first downs, a 53.2 percent third down conversion rate, and 30 points (with a range of 17-48).
# In the final four ACC games (4-0) and at Georgia (1-0), they surrendered an average of 351.2 yard, 17.6 first downs, a 40 percent third down rate, and 18.2 points (with a range of 6-28).
Oh, in the past five games, the Jackets have pulled in 17 of their 27 total takeaways, returning four of them for touchdowns.
They are tied for second in the nation with six defensive touchdowns overall.
Tech traveled to Charlotte Friday largely for sake of defensive improvements over the second half of the season.
Nealy leads the Jackets with three fumble recoveries, Davis leads with three fumbles forced, and Golden and cornerback D.J. White each have four interceptions.
Nealy, who also has two interceptions, has scored twice. Davis, Golden, White and defensive back Chris Milton have all scored once.
“Honestly, creating havoc, having the right guys in the right place at the right time,” Nealy said of Tech’s wonderful habit for thievery. “We practice week in and week out with takeaway drills. We’ve been doing that all the years that I’ve been here.
“Guys want to get the ball out, do better for our team, get the ball back in our offense’s hands. I give credit to everybody on defense that keeps fighting, hacking at the ball, being ball hogs.”
In between five-game winning streaks to start and wrap the regular season came back-to-back losses to Duke and North Carolina.
That prompted a board meeting of sorts where Johnson weighed in with more opinions and suggestions than usual. Even as the Jackets were winning, opponents were rolling. Georgia Southern put 528 yards and 38 points up in Bobby Dodd Stadium only to see Tech rally to win in the final minute.
So after the two-game skid, Johnson, Roof and the Tech staff made philosophical, schematic and roster tweaks on defense. Theirs is a growth product.
They did not deign to plow up the farm and start anew, yet rather made a few transplants, added fertilizer and put more plants in the field – not necessarily in that order.
Tech became more aggressive by adding blitzes (without getting crazy), playing more man-to-man coverages in the secondary, and by using more players so that starters would be fresher and hopefully more effective later in games.
When Roof recently used 28 defenders in a game, he said it was the most he’d ever deployed.
Defensive line coach Mike Pelton and the staff have done yeoman work coming of a short harvest of sorts.
Then, the Jackets not only lost multiple D-line candidates over the summer to a variety of transfers, defections or player dismissals, but learned shortly before the season that converted end Jabari Hunt-Days and touted newcomer Kendarious Whitehead were academically ineligible.
Freeman, who enrolled early, has been a dream for a true freshman.
He’s not big (6-foot-1, 236), but he’s quick and relentless. With 46 tackles, team-leading totals of nine tackles for lost yardage and 4.5 sacks, he’s made more than a fair share of plays. There’s something else about him, too, that works.
“He finishes plays. He plays for the entire down,” Roof said. “He doesn’t stop after he doesn’t have a chance to make a play and as a result of that sometimes when we don’t think he has a chance to make a play, he makes one. He’s such a great kid, and a great competitor. He’s got a fantastic attitude, and our staff really enjoys coaching him.”
The move of 6-5, 286-pound Patrick Gamble from reserve defensive tackle to starting end has factored as well.
He hasn’t logged big statistics, and he’s continued playing inside at times as the Jackets have more inventory at end than tackle, yet from the outside has helped change the look of the defense.
“It adds to our front because it adds to our edge. It gives us a guy who is 6-5, 280 or 285 pounds as opposed to some other numbers so that helps,” Roof said. “[Gamble] has played inside, and we roll guys [in and out].”
The Jackets will have their hands full against Florida State.
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston has not put together a season to match last, but he’s lethal in second halves – when he has a quarterback rating of 160.7 vs. a rating of 129.5 in first halves, when he has thrown 14 of his 17 interceptions.
FSU running backs Dalvin Cook, a super speedy freshman, and 6-1, 225-pound senior Karlos Williams form a potent tandem.
Wide receiver Rashad Greene is the leading receiver in Seminoles’ history, and has tied a school-record with 86 passes receptions this season. Senior tight end Nick O’Leary is among the best in the nation.
And the FSU O-line averages 6-5+ at weights of 330, 325, 308, 330 and 320. The Jackets will demonstrably outsized up front. They’re used to that.
Hence, the attitude, when Roof said, “Whoever plays has got to get it done.”
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