Aug. 10, 2016
Matt Winkeljohn – The Good Word –
A year older and wiser, A.J. Gray is also louder. That figures to be good news for Georgia Tech, as he’s being asked to lead from his free safety spot.
Tech coaches knew before fall practice began that Gray has prodigious physical gifts but they’re looking for him to be more vocal as a sophomore. They’re also looking for him to be more assertive than he was as a freshman, when he was in on 21 tackles with an interception and a fumble recovery in 10 games.
So far, so good.
When asked if the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gray has improved significantly as a communicator and at recognizing how to help teammates, defensive coordinator Ted Roof began nodding his head.
“He’s not there yet, but he’s better than he was last year,” Roof explained. “I think last year it was fast for him; it was just ‘see ball, try and hit ball; see receiver, try and cover receiver,’ whereas now he’s trying to play within the framework of what we’re doing.
“[With] another year hearing the same words, the same techniques . . . you should get better. Not that any of us have arrived yet.”
Gray played quarterback at Washington County High School, where he was a Parade All-American and the Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year.
He’s going to work in something of a similar fashion for the Jackets. A big part of his job will be to pick up opposing offensive formations, movement and personnel groupings and then instruct teammates before the snap.
“It’s a lot different because, this year, I know what I’m doing and I know all the play calls to where I can play faster, get lined up quicker,” he said. “I can help people out.”
With four starters gone from the Tech secondary after the graduations of safeties Jamal Golden and Demond Smith and cornerbacks D.J. White and Chris Milton, the Jackets are going to have new starters in the back.
They won’t, however, necessarily be new.
Backing up Gray is junior Shaun Kagawa, who played in 10 games last season.
“Lance has had a really good camp so far and so has Lawrence for that matter,” Roof said. “Step played a lot at nickel for us and did a nice job. [Third-year sophomore] Lamont Simmons, behind Step, that’s shaping up to be a real good battle, and [redshirt freshman] Dorian Walker has changed his body. He did a lot of different jobs in high school and is now trying to hone in on the corner position . . . We’ve got Lawrence and Corey Griffin competing at strong safety so that’s a good battle.”
Head coach Paul Johnson wants the defense to improve in several ways and is quick to suggest that, “We’d love to get back to , where we created a bunch of turnovers.”
Indeed, the Jackets managed a modest 17 takeaways last season, leading to 78 points scored. A season earlier, Tech scored 137 points off 29 takeaways.
In ’14, Tech intercepted 18 passes, mustered 338 return yards off those, and scored five touchdowns on pick-sixes. There was also a fumble returned for a score.
Last season, the Jackets had nine interceptions and just 70 return yards. They returned one interception and one fumble for scores.
Gray had one of those nine picks and Austin Lawrence another.
They’re all looking for more.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” Gray said. “We should get a lot of turnovers because we’re really focused on that. I feel like if we’re on the same page, everybody can be an outstanding player.”