Going into last season, we knew that the secondary would be the major strength of Tech's defense, and possibly the whole team. Having only lost one key member (Rod Sweeting) and returning the other 3 of their 4 starters (Thomas, Young, Johnson), it would follow that they'd be the best again this year, right?
Wrong. Going into this fall, there's a new sheriff in town for our defense -- the linebackers. Last year (the back half in particular) saw major development from Jabari Hunt-Days and Brandon Watts, to complement continued impressive play from Quayshawn Nealy. That development is going to continue as they grow and improve as a unit. It's easily conceivable that these three could all see the NFL one day.
The strong-side linebacker, Watts is a wildly athletic linebacker (he played safety and QB in high school before growing to fit the linebacker mold) who has a real knack for both run support and pass coverage. In fact, Charles Kelly ran a scheme similar to a 4-2-5 last season (4 linemen, 2 linebackers, 5 in the secondary), and Watts played a nickel corner-esque position that had him play short-to-mid-range pass coverage more than most linebackers would.
In the middle we have Hunt-Days, an absolute physical specimen who's still developing in his role but is a major asset nonetheless. Listed at 6'3" & 250 lbs, Hunt-Days is a straight-up beast who can dominate the running game between the tackles. His speed and pass defending abilities are assets as well, and given another two years all of those skills will continue to develop along with this young linebacker -- don't forget, he's only going to be a redshirt sophomore this fall after starting all 14 games as a redshirt freshman.
On the weak-side, we'll have a breakout player from last year in Quayshawn Nealy. Nealy is a very quick linebacker who does a great job in both run support and pass coverage. He's an excellent, very reliable tackler who pursues the play well and always seems to find himself in the midst of things. Nealy was last year's fourth-leading tackler (behind Isaiah Johnson, Jemea Thomas, and Jabari Hunt-Days), and looks to move up in the rankings this year as he plays behind his buddy Jeremiah Attaochu.
The team of Watts, Hunt-Days, and Nealy made up the third, fourth, and fifth-leading tacklers on last year's defense, and this fall will take over for the secondary as the best unit on either side of the ball for the Yellow Jackets. I'm staking my claim to that now -- we'll be sure to revisit it and verify my accuracy this Fall.
Do you agree with me on this one, Tech fans? Will the linebackers be our best unit this Fall, or will there be someone else out there in white and gold who will be superior?