With the dark days of the Al Groh era now planted firmly in the rear view mirror and third-year coordinator Ted Roof standing in the limelight, it finally appears that Georgia Tech will be able to field a defense in 2015 which could rival some of the high-flying offenses on the upcoming schedule. After all, the 2015 defensive roster promises to be the most talented since at least 2012, when Groh so famously underachieved with a slew of NFL-caliber defenders on the team. In fact, I am so comfortable with the talent on the team and the product that Roof has put on the field for the last two seasons that I am predicting a top-15 defense on the Flats this season. Let's delve further into why I feel the way I do.
The value of experience
An experienced defense can be one of the biggest assets a college team can possibly have, and Georgia Tech will feature one in 2015. Of the current projected starters, 10 out of 11 are upperclassmen who have played extended snaps for a number of seasons. While it is nice to have a situation like Miami currently has with an upcoming class of highly touted recruits and no seasoned starters, it has been proven time and time again that experience wins games when you don't have new five-star guys to turn to every year. Last season, each of the top three defenses in the nation -- Clemson, Penn State, and Stanford -- had at least 8 upperclassmen starting. The remainder of the top 15 also had a high percentage of juniors and seniors starting, and to great effect -- they allowed an average of just 4.7 yards per play and 308.8 yards per game compared to 6.32 yards per play and 411.3 yards per game for Tech's relatively inexperienced defense.
The returning cornerstones
Now, let's take a look at the key returnees for Tech this season. On the defensive line, Adam Gotsis will return for his final collegiate season. Very much an NFL prospect, the Aussie has been eating up double teams since arriving on the Flats and will benefit from the return of fellow lineman and draft prospect Jabari Hunt-Days as well as improved performance by the passrushing unit. Hunt-Days (pending academic eligibility) and Gotsis should provide the strength up front that was missing when the line play was so questionable last season. Though an underclassman, freshman All-American DE KeShun Freeman will almost certainly feed off of the attention given to the aforementioned linemen in a way similar to what Clemson's Vic Beasly did with his strong group of defensive tackles. Freeman and returning DE Rod Rook-Chungong should provide the passrush that was missing last season, hopefully to the point that it fixes some of Tech's third-and-long woes.
Tech's linebacking core should also be a much-improved group over last season. With returning tackling machine P.J. Davis, the veteran Tyler Marcordes, and a fully healthy Anthony Harrell, there is more than enough talent to go around. Whether Ted Roof ends up going with a 4-3 or a 4-2-5 for most snaps this season, each of those three will provide stability and a strong veteran presence to the defense which seemed undisciplined and lost at times during 2014. The 2015 secondary will be the only area of the defense to lose a starter from last season, with safety Isaiah Johnson having departed for the NFL. Key returnees here include ballhawking safety Jamal Golden and his fellow probably starter Demond Smith as well as the much improved corner Chris Milton and the obscenely talented D.J. White. While that group was already talented and successful last season, an improved passrush and better defensive line presence should make life much easier on the secondary -- opposing quarterbacks had entirely too much time in the pocket last season (see: Orange Bowl Hail Mary).
While it is obviously fantastic to feature a stacked starting lineup full of talent, injuries and other hindrances are bound to hit any program hard throughout a long college season. That is what makes depth so important in college football, and Georgia Tech just so happens to boast some fantastic depth at nearly every defensive position. Even more encouraging is the fact that even Tech's two-deep is full of experienced, seasoned veterans that are ready to step up if need be and make plays. On the defensive line, Francis Kallon and Pat Gamble as well as newcomer Kenderius Whitehead could play meaningful snaps in relief of an injured or tired starter while linebackers Dominique Noble and Beau Hankins could do the same for Tech's linebacking core. The secondary depth, while it may be young, is perhaps the most talented of any unit -- rising sophomores Step Durham and Lawrence Austin as well as Shaun Kagawa and Lynn Griffin represent both the face of the defense and key pieces for 2015.
There are also a number of immensely talented freshmen who could step up and see the field in 2015. While everything I'm about to say obviously depends on who will redshirt for the upcoming season and who won't, I could certainly see a player like Vic Alexander, Kyle Henderson, or Anree Saint-Amour getting some on-field time as true freshmen like the Austin twins and Step Durham did last year. In fact, a few redshirt freshmen already appear on the three-deep: linebacker Tre Jackson, defensive tackle Kyle Henderson, and safety Jalen Johnson.
The building blocks
Rather than referring to players as building blocks, I'm going to use this section to talk about all of the areas which Tech experienced great success in last season on the defensive side. The Jackets were a top-25 team in terms of fewest defensive penalties called against them -- a staple of Paul Johnson teams -- and that ranking only figures to get better this season with the returning talent and good discipline. The opportunistic nature of last season's defense was also well-documented -- the Jackets finished tied for 10th in interceptions and tied for 38th in fumbles recovered, allowing for a 17th overall finish in terms of turnovers gained (29) and a 2nd place finish in the defensive touchdowns category (6). There is certainly an argument to be made that we can't expect the same amount of turnovers this season, but I do attribute some of that opportunism to the talent and instinct of our secondary players. There are, however, some areas that the defense will need to improve in this season. Tech's third down defense was atrocious last season, as was the rushing defense, but there are ample reasons to expect improvements in those ares in 2015 -- especially given the talent on the defensive line. Everything is in place for a successful defense.
The talent is undoubtedly there for Tech to have its most successful defensive unit in recent history. If the 2015 defense can manage to retain the opportunistic and resilient characteristics it featured last season while the offense continues holding the ball for the majority of the game, all the pieces will be in place for a very successful 2015. There is no reason not to expect improvement in some of the areas of weakness from last year, and I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what Ted Roof puts on the field come week one against Alcorn State.
Do you see Tech's defense as a possible top-15 candidate or am I chugging Kool Aid?