Youth will be served on the Yellow Jackets' defense in 2011. This season, we will witness the beginning of potentially the best secondary Tech has ever had, and certainly the best since I started paying attention in 2002. This is an extremely young position group with all the talent and athleticism we could wish for. There is one huge question mark however: inexperience. Few of Tech's defensive backs have been defensive starters in games, and those with game experience are not as talented as the younger players (this sounds like every other position on this roster, doesn't it?). So, who are these people of which I talk so highly? The listed starters are:
S: Isaiah Johnson, Rashaad Reid
Because none of the other players have had much game time, we have to use other means to judge our players. Corners rely on their athleticism more than anything else. If those guys can shine in practice, then they can also shine in games (usually). The key to judging safeties early in their careers is to look at their performance on special teams (key examples: Jamal Lewis and Chris Reis). Because I'm not on campus anymore and have to watch the games on TV, I don't have as good of a feel as I did in the past, but when a guy is making plays, you notice. Let's get to it.
CB Rod Sweeting (Junior, 6-0, 184)
After two years of backup service and special teams play, this is the year for Rod Sweeting to contribute full time to the Yellow Jacket defense. He has been the third or fourth option at CB his entire career at Tech, playing in 26 games (special teams, nickel, and dime) but starting none during his two years. His only fault during that time was inexperience, sitting behind a veteran group that played in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, he should know the defense well enough to trust his athleticism, and he is very athletic. He's got pro caliber length and ball skills, can cover any wide receiver in the conference, and is more physical than his size (he's a little skinnier than I would like) would indicate. If he performs to the level that is expected of him, he should pull down some sort of All-Conference awards. He is one of three players in the secondary that have a legitimate shot at the NFL in the future, and I look forward to two productive seasons from him.
CB Louis Young (Sophomore, 6-1, 201)
Louis Young was the first Al Groh recruit when Groh took the job in 2009, and he's a good one. He's got the potential to be the best player on defense in the coming years. He played sparingly on defense in 2010, but contributed on special teams last season. While playing defense, he looked like he needed more time to learn the scheme, and let's hope that's happened, because he has pro caliber size, speed, and physicality. In all, he's the best player in the secondary in terms of pure talent. When he's matured, he's got the potential to be Tech's best defender in recent history.
S Isaiah Johnson (Sophomore, 6-2, 195)
The safety that returns with the most potential started only 3 games, but hinted at enough talent to know that he'll be one starter at safety this season. Johnson was very physical and will be a force on our defense for years to come, but his major weakness is his coverage ability. It was unclear whether the issue was his inexperience or coverage ability. If it was his inexperience, he'll improve over time and carry on the tradition of successful Tech safeties from James Butler to Dawan Landry to Morgan Burnett. His physicality is what put him on the field as a freshman (even though the safety position had two veterans who had started before), and that will keep him on the field this year. He is the third player in Tech's secondary that can make it in the NFL.
The second safety position will provide the real interesting positional battle for the secondary this fall, but determining the third corner will also be something to watch. Ryan Ayers (RS Freshman, 5-10, 178), Michael Peterson (RS Senior, 5-11, 190), and Rashaad Reid (Senior, 5-10, 191) are the other corners on the roster for the 2011 season. Unfortunately (for us), Ayers, who would have likely been the third option at corner, is transferring to Liberty to pursue an undisclosed degree not offered at Tech. The other two players will most likely be contributing in the nickel and dime packages. The coaches have raved about Peterson's improvement through the spring, but his role will not likely increase in this, his final season. Reid is listed on the depth chart as the starting safety, but I'm not so sure we'll see him starting there this season. After a promising freshman showing, he hasn't done much since. He's more of a corner than a safety, and he may have been put on the depth chart because he's the most senior player on the roster. In his defense, however, with Johnson playing more of a strong safety role, a good cover safety may complement him better.
One of the most interesting cases on the roster is swing man Jemea Thomas (RS Sophomore, 5-10, 190), who redshirted last season after playing as a freshman. He was Morgan Burnett's primary backup and standout special teams player in 2009. Remember when I said special teams is a good indicator of how a player will perform at safety in the future? This is the guy I was thinking of for this year. However, he's more of a hitter too, and so I'll want to see how his coverage ability is before giving him the starting role over Reid. He's a little undersized (but still packs a nice punch), but he is a playmaker and we will definitely see him on the field in 2011.
The other player that's been showing promise is Fred Holton (Sophomore, 6-1, 209). Coaches have raved about his work in the spring and summer, leading us to believe that he'll push for a starting spot this fall. However, with the players competing for the second safety spot, it'll take a lot to move up the depth chart over more experienced players. Fortunately, he has great size for a safety, and is being touted for his strength. If he doesn't win the starting job this season, I could definitely see him winning it in the near future.
The incoming freshmen Domonique Noble (Freshman, 6-2, 185) and Jamal Golden (Freshman, 6-0, 185) will likely contribute on special teams if they don't redshirt. The position definitely has plenty of depth, so it's very likely that they'll redshirt to preserve their eligibility. Both are being touted as very talented, so the outlook of this position looks good. The final scholarship player, Lance Richardson (RS Sophomore, 6-2, 206), is probably a depth guy and will contribute on special teams.
The two corner spots and one safety spot are locks. The nickel and other safety spot are where the interesting battles will take place. With Ayers gone, the battle will come down to Michael Peterson, Rashaad Reid, and Jemea Thomas. The other safety position will come down to Rashaad Reid, Jemea Thomas, and Fred Holton. Regardless of who wins the starting spots, we can all be sure of one thing: this is going to be a talented, yet inexperienced, group in the defense. Their inexperience will definitely lead to many mistakes: blown coverages, misfits in the run game, falling for double moves, etc. However, I'm sure of one thing. The pass defense will improve in 2011. In the second half of the season, the pass defense will be as good or better than the first half (even though the opponents will be better). But who will be in the secondary next year?
CB: Rod Sweeting, Louis Young, and Rashaad Reid
S: Isaiah Johnson, Jemea Thomas
That's my starting lineup for opening day. I could very well see Holton taking over by the end of the year and never looking back.