May 17, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
There was a hunger going around Georgia Tech’s defensive unit during spring workouts.
It was contagious and, fittingly, started where the defense starts — up front.
It made sense that that insatiable appetite would start up front, as that’s where the most vacancies were. Two of the four starters from the unit that started and won the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl — tackle Patrick Gamble and end Rod Rook-Chungong — graduated, as did Francis Kallon, who made six starts at tackle over the course of his senior campaign.
But the hunger didn’t end there. It extended to the linebackers, where someone was needed to try to fill the huge shoes left by the graduation of outside linebacker P.J. Davis.
While it’s a lot to talent and leadership to fill, based on how the spring game played out, there’ll be no shortage of candidates vying to take over those roles come fall camp.
“You’ve got guys who’ve played a lot and some who haven’t played a lot,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “Kyle [Cerge-Henderson] played a good deal last year, Antonio [Simmons] … so it’s kind of a mix of young guys and guys with some experience.”
The Jackets’ players see this as opportunity knocking with plenty of qualified candidates ready to kick the door down.
“The people that are replacing the guys who left, they played a little bit and still contributed,” said junior tackle Desmond Branch, one of those ready to plant a foot on that door. “I think people just think we’re not going to recover but that’s not true. We’re very talented and very deep on the defense.”
The depth up front includes known quantities in junior end and three-year starter KeShun Freeman (39 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss last season), senior end Antonio Simmons (32 tackles and 5.5 TFL in ’16), who saw a lot of playing time as Rook’s primary backup last season, and Cerge-Henderson, a returning starter at tackle who made seven starts as a sophomore last season.
Simmons stood out in the April 21 spring game, finishing with six tackles (three for loss), two sacks and a forced fumble.
Among the talented suitors seeking bigger roles across the defensive front in ’17 are senior end Anree Saint-Amour, sophomore tackle Brandon Adams, junior end Tyler Merriweather and sophomore tackle Brentavious Glanton, as well as redshirt freshmen Chris Martin and Tyler Vernon, redshirt sophomore Nick Williams and incoming freshmen Cortez Alston, Kelton Dawson and Antwan Owens.
“Everybody’s hungry,” said Branch. “I feel like the people that want to fill those spots, we’re all hungry. The hunger to play and the hunger to get out there and show what we’ve got, really pushes everybody on the defensive line to a whole other level. That’s really going to surprise a lot of people.”
What may unpleasantly surprise opposing offenses is the potential for the Jackets to come at them in waves.
“That’s definitely one of the things we’re trying to get,” said Branch, who played in nine games last season, recording five tackles and two quarterback hurries. “Since we’re so talented, with the depth, we’re just trying to have guys go as hard as possible then once you’re tired, let the guy behind you go as hard as possible, because he’s [just] as talented. Just wear the offense down.”
Johnson saw that potential in the spring game. It’s a group that may lack starts but makes that up with enthusiasm and talent.
“I thought Anree (Saint-Amour) was disruptive and made some plays,” said Johnson. “Every time you looked up Tyler Vernon was making a play. Antonio (Simmons) and Anree were probably the best pass-rushers [in the game].”
There are also plenty of eye-catchers at linebacker. It starts in the middle with junior Brant Mitchell, the lone returning starter among Georgia Tech’s linebackers and the team’s fourth-leading tackler last season with 71 stops. He had a big spring game, making a game-high-tying seven tackles (four solo).
However, Mitchell isn’t the only contributor from last season who returns at linebacker, as senior Terrell Lewis (13 games, three starts, 21 tackles, 3.5 for TFL), junior Victor Alexander (13 games, 15 tackles) and redshirt sophomore David Curry (13 games, 1 start, 12 tackles) also saw significant time last fall. Sophomore Tyler Cooksey, who recorded six tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in last month’s spring game, will also challenge for playing time, along with highly touted incoming freshmen Jaquan Henderson, Bruce Jordan-Swilling and T.D. Roof.
Mitchell expects a ripple effect to work its way back from the D-line.
“I think as far as our D-line’s concerned, we’ve got a lot of guys rushing the ball and that helps with freeing me up,” said Mitchell, who had two stops behind the line of scrimmage in the spring game. “I think it’s all-around. It takes everybody.”
The ripple effect could work all the way back to the secondary.
“I was very pleased with [the D-line],” said junior safety A.J. Gray. “They did a good job all spring. They’re really tuned in and working.”
Branch feels that it’s a luxury for the front seven to be able to go to work knowing there’s an experienced secondary behind them.
“It feels great knowing you have veterans back there having your back,” said Branch. “If you don’t have a good rush, maybe they’re going to save you and give you a little extra time to get back there. It works both ways. Maybe they lose somebody, that’s the defensive line’s job to make up for that. So it really goes hand-in-hand, the DBs and the defensive line.”
Come fall camp, hand-in-hand will turn into hand-to-hand, as guys battle each other for a starting spot.
“I expect everything to be competitive,” said Branch. “The guy that I’m competing with is one of my good friends, Brentavious Glanton. I expect him to try to get that No. 1 spot just like I’m doing and just like any other position on the defensive line. We’re all good friends but we all still have that competitive nature in us.”