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Georgia Tech Football: 2016 Position Previews - Defensive Line

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The Yellow Jacket defensive front may be the deepest position on the team.

North Carolina v Georgia Tech

Countdown to kickoff: 53 days

As our 100 Days to Kickoff series continues to tick down, we begin our position previews to provide an in-depth look at who will be on the field for the Yellow Jackets this year. Each position has seen some old faces leave and new ones take their place. This week is all about becoming more familiar with the depth chart and getting an idea of what to expect out of each position group this fall.

2016 Position Previews: Defensive Line

Who’s Gone?

The biggest loss from 2015 will be that of DT Adam Gotsis. The Aussie was an anchor of the Yellow Jacket line his entire career, making 37 consecutive starts before a knee injury ended his time on The Flats three weeks early. It’s hard to overstate the impact Gotsis had on the Yellow Jacket defense. His ability to both stop the run and get after the quarterback from an interior position is a rare combination and will be missed.

In addition to Gotsis, three other members of last season’s defensive line are not returning in 2016. DT Jabari Hunt left the team midway through last season after continued off-field problems. Defensive end and special teamer Tyler Stargel decided to retire at the end of the 2015 season, despite having a year of eligibility remaining. Stargel was little used on the line but a key member of the special teams units. Finally, Scott Morgan switched to offensive line, joining his twin brother.

Who’s Back?

To put it succinctly, almost everyone. The Yellow Jackets return 10 defensive lineman, seven of whom saw regular playing time last season. All four starters at the end of the 2015 season return this year. Leading that group is junior DE KeShun Freeman. The 2014 Freshman All-American has started 24 consecutive games and led all defensive lineman last season with 44 tackles. Opposite Freeman, senior Rod Rook-Chungong returns after making 8 starts in 2015. On the interior of the line, senior Patrick Gamble will bring plenty of experience at both tackle positions, starting 10 games between the two in 2015. The fourth returning starter is sophomore Kyle Cerge-Henderson, who was thrust into the starting role after Gotsis’s injury.

Other key returning players include Francis Kallon, Anree Saint-Amour, and Antonio Simmons. Kallon, a senior, can play at either tackle position and hopes to finally live up to the hype that surrounded him as a prospect. Saint-Amour, a sophomore, and Simmons, a junior, both look to serve primarily as backups to Freeman or in place of Rook-Chungong in pass rush situations. Senior Kenderius Whitehead and sophomore Tyler Merriweather both return but will not see much game time, barring injuries. Walk-on Mitchell Williams also returns.

Who’s New?

Two members of the 2015 recruiting class that could factor into the defensive line battle for the first time this season are redshirt freshmen Brentavious Glanton and Trent Sellers. Glanton is projected to start the season as a backup along the interior of the line. Sellers will likely slot in as a down roster DE. Walk-on Nick Williams is also listed as a redshirt freshman.

One newcomer with the ability to make an immediate impact is JUCO transfer Desmond Branch. The talented DE comes to Atlanta from New Mexico by way of Trinity Valley Community College. He is eligibile to play this year, as the first of three remaining years of eligibility. If the strength and explosiveness Branch showed at the JUCO level can translate the ACC, he will force his way into playing time.

The 2016 recruiting class boasted three additions to the Yellow Jacket defensive line. The class was headlined by DE Jordan Woods. Rated as a 4-star prospect by Rivals, Woods is the highest-rated recruit to come to Georgia Tech since DB Step Durham in 2014. The biggest addition to the defensive line (literally) comes in the form of DT Brandon Adams. The freshman brings some much-needed bulk to a Yellow Jacket front that is often woefully undersized. Fellow DT Chris Martin is the third lineman in this recruiting class. Finally, preferred walk-ons Tyler Vernon and Josh White join the team. White is a bit of an odd situation, as he was ranked by several recruiting services despite his walk-on status.

What Should We Expect?

The 2016 Georgia Tech defensive line situation is a bit of an odd one to analyze. There are a lot of players that appear to be ready to contribute this year, but there are only so many snaps to go around. There is a lot of experience on the line, but most of the upperclassmen have not set themselves so far ahead of the pack as to separate themselves from the tantalizing young prospects. Coach Johnson and Coach Roof have shown time and again they aren’t afraid to play freshmen once they’ve earned the opportunity. The easiest way to breakdown the defensive line situation is probably to go spot by spot along the line.

Weakside/Rush Defensive End

The WDE is probably the most straight forward position on the defensive line. KeShun Freeman has had the starting position locked down the past two seasons and shows no signs of letting it go. The WDE’s role is to provide the primary pass rush, attacking the QB, and Freeman has proven he can be successful at this position. Though Freeman is all but a sure thing to start, there is some competition at the position. Anree Saint-Amour emerged as a primary backup during his freshman season and should see an increased role this fall. In key pass rush situations, look for Freeman and Saint-Amour to be on the field together. Antonio Simmons started opposite Freeman at times last season, but is most at home on the weakside. Simmons was not enrolled in school for the spring semester but is on track to rejoin the team for the upcoming season. He was not likely to challenge Freeman for the starting spot and missing the spring will not help him move up the depth chart.

Strongside Defensive End

The SDE position is anchored by Rod Rook-Chungong. The fifth-year senior’s statistics won’t jump off the page but he has been a solid contributor for two seasons. He is particularly strong stopping the run, which is key at SDE. Rook-Chungong is a known quantity, but he but he doesn’t offer the upside of some of his younger competition. One name to keep an eye on is Desmond Branch. The transfer has about 25 pounds on Rook-Chungong and combined with a quick first step, could make Branch a combination run stopper and pass rusher that would be a perfect fit at SDE. This is also a position where true freshman Jordan Woods could force his way into playing time if he performs well in practice. A dark horse for playing time at this spot is Patrick Gamble, who played defensive end his redshirt freshman season. Depending on how the interior positions shake out, shifting Gamble back to end could be the best way to get the best players on the field together.

Nose Tackle

The job of the 1-technique DT, or nose tackle, is to take on two offensive linemen, occupying the center and a guard. By commanding a double team, the NT frees up the rest of the defensive line to attack the ball. Patrick Gamble started last season at NT but shifted over to the 3-technique after the Gotsis injury. Kyle Cerge-Henderson started the last three games at NT and was spelled by Francis Kallon. Any of these three could start at NT this season. Though Cerge-Henderson ended the season at NT, he seemed overwhelmed at times and is slightly undersized at 6’-1". Francis Kallon seems to be the best fit on paper, but was beaten out by Gamble and Cerge-Henderson last season. Presumably he would need to really impress the coaches in practice to jump into the starting lineup. The biggest wildcard on the defensive line is true freshman Brandon Adams. If he can crack the rotation, Adams has the size and skills to finally give Georgia Tech a true nose tackle to anchor the defense. Adams is currently listed as 6’-2", 349 pounds, up from the 315 pound number on most recruiting websites. If the new number is correct, a rapid 34 pound weight gain is a bit concerning as it could detract from other areas of Adams’s game.

Defensive Tackle

Just as with nose tackle, the projected starter at the 3-technique DT differs depending on who is being asked. It would not be considered a surprise for any of Gamble, Kallon, or Cerge-Henderson to open the season as the starter at DT. Gamble performed well at the position late last season, but lacks the quick first step that made Gotsis such a deadly interior pass rusher. Kallon and Cerge-Henderson probably both have higher upsides than Gamble. Kallon’s length and athleticism could make him a terror for opposing guards, while Cerge-Henderson is deceptively quick and showed flashes of a first step that puts him in backfields before the quarterback can think twice. If no player seizes the position, that could open the door for Glanton to steal playing time.

Projected Depth Chart

So what exactly should we expect from the defensive line in 2016? Last season, the Jackets essentially had an eight-man rotation on the defensive line. I would expect the size of the rotation to increase as more players force their way into playing situations. On the ends, I expect Freeman and Rook-Chungong to start the season on top of the depth chart, with Saint-Amour seeing significant time in pass rush situations. Simmons and Branch will also factor into the DE rotation, and the later should challenge Rook-Chungong for a starting spot by season’s end. Along the interior, I expect Gamble to slide back over to nose tackle while Cerge-Henderson and Kallon battle it out for the 3-technique spot. However, in the spring game, Gamble played with the second team defense, perhaps indicating that he has been passed on the depth chart. Regardless of which two start, all three will see significant time at the beginning of the season. Should any of them disappoint, Adams and Glanton will be waiting in the wings to steal a starting spot. Adams looks to be in the best position to do so, assuming his weight does not prove to be an issue. If Adams takes the NT job, Gamble could see time at other positions along the line.

First Team Second Team Third Team
WDE KeShun Freeman (Jr.) Anree Saint-Amour (So.) Antonio Simmons (Jr.)
NT Patrick Gamble (R-Sr.) Kyle Cerge-Henderson (So.)
OR
Francis Kallon (R-Sr.)
Brandon Adams (Fr.)
DT Kyle Cerge-Henderson (So.)
OR
Francis Kallon (R-Sr.)
Brentavious Glanton (R-Fr.) Chris Martin (Fr.)
SDE Rod Rook-Chungong (R-Sr.) Desmond Branch (R-So.) Trent Sellers (R-Fr.)

The only thing that can be said for sure about the 2016 Yellow Jacket defensive line is that there is a lot that is unsure. There is a boatload of talent upfront and the line could look completely different by the end of the season. There is a battle for playing time at almost every position, making the defensive line one of the most exciting position groups to watch this season.