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Georgia Tech Football: 2016 Position Previews - Defense

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Replacing six starters, the Georgia Tech defense looks to the future

NCAA Football: Florida State at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Countdown to Kickoff: 50 days

The 2015 Georgia Tech defense was a bit of a mixed bag. The defense gave up 368 yards per game, good for 44th in the country and an improvement on 396 yards per game in 2014. However, the scoring defense allowed 25.8 points per game, a slight tick up from 2014’s 25.1 points per game. Additionally, the 2015 edition of the Yellow Jacket defense did not produce big plays at the level of the 2014 edition, only creating 17 turnovers. In 2014, the defense produced 18 interceptions. With the offense sputtering and the defense not contributing big plays of their own, it’s easy to see why the 2015 was such a disappointment.

The 2016 Yellow Jacket defense will be hard pressed to improve on their performances in the last two seasons, as new faces will have to step up to fill roles left vacant by numerous key departures. The roster isn’t lacking for talent, but translating that talent to the field will be a challenge.

Who’s Gone?

Six starters have to be replaced from the 2015 defensive unit, and no loss looms larger than that of DT Adam Gotsis. The second round NFL draft pick was Tech’s best pass rusher each of the past two seasons, all while being a good run stopper on the interior of the line. It’s highly unlikely that any one player will be able to replace his production.

While no single loss will be as impactful as the loss of Gotsis, the graduation of the majority of the starting secondary may cumulatively be a bigger concern. CBs D.J. White and Chris Milton as well as safeties Jamal Golden and Demond Smith all concluded their time on the Flats in 2015. That’s a combined 207 games played that aren’t coming through that door.

The other starter to graduate is LB Tyler Marcordes. Marcordes manned the strongside last year and while he wasn’t flashy, he did a solid job and was a key contributor. Other players that will not return in 2016 are DT Jabari Hunt (dimissed/graduated), DL Tyler Stargel (retirement), LB Domonique Nobel (graduated), LB Rusty Scott (graduated), and DB Dante Wigley (transfer). DT Scott Morgan moved to offensive line in the offseason.

Who’s Back?

The defense returns 5 starters: DE KeShun Freeman, DE Rod Rook-Chungong, DL Patrick Gamble, LB P.J. Davis, and CB Lawrence Austin. Freeman has been the second best pass rusher on the team since his freshman season while Gamble has provided strong, versatile play at strongside DE, DT, and NT over the past three seasons. Rook-Chungong has been a solid contributor each of the past two seasons at strongside DE. Davis was the leading tackler and quarterback of the defense. I’ve chosen to list Austin as a starter, as last season the Jackets played mostly a 4-2-5 nickel scheme, with Austin starting 9 games in the nickel spot.

In addition to the starters, several major contributors are back and looking for increased playing time. DE Anree Saint-Amour and DE Antonio Simmons will play in pass rush situations, while DTs Francis Kallon and Kyle Cerge-Henderson will battle to start alongside Patrick Gamble on the interior of the line. LB Brant Mitchell and S A.J. Gray both return after strong freshman campaigns. Other returnees to keep an eye on include LB Vic Alexander, LB Chase Alford, CB Step Durham, CB Lance Austin, S Corey Griffin, and S Shaun Kagawa.

Who’s New?

Two key additions to the Georgia Tech defense come in the form of redshirt sophomore transfers Lamont Simmons and Desmond Branch. Simmons, a CB from USC, has already been on campus for a year, sitting out 2015 per NCAA transfer rules, boasts tremendous size and athleticism. Branch is a defensive lineman from New Mexico by way of Trinity Valley Community College and should contribute immediately.

Several members of the 2015 recruiting class will make their debuts on the defense this season. David Curry and Tyler Cooksey should battle it out for the third linebacker spot when Tech goes to a 4-3 defense. Curry could even see time at nickel cornerback. Meiko Dotson’s best tool is his speed, but he also has pretty good cover skills. On the line, Brentavious Glanton could force his way into the rotation at DT. DB Christian Campbell, DB Dorian Walker, and DL Trent Sellers could also see playing time.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has shown no reluctance to play true freshmen if they earn the chance and there are a few members of the 2016 recruiting class who are slated to do just that. The class was headlined by 4-star DE Jordan Woods. While he is likely to redshirt due to the amount of depth at the position, Woods can play on either end of the line and shooting up the depth chart isn’t out of the question. One lineman who is a bit more likely to play is Brandon Adams. The big defensive tackle is the only true 1-technique tackle on the roster. There are several players that can adequately hold down the position, but if Adams is ready for the college game he has a chance to bring something to the table that the Yellow Jackets haven’t had in years. With all the turnover in the secondary, the door is open for DBs Ajani Kerr and Jarett Cole to find some playing time.

Projected Depth Chart

First String Second String
WDE KeShun Freeman (Jr.) Anree Saint-Amour (So.)
NT Patrick Gamble (R-Sr.) Brandon Adams (Fr.)
DT Kyle Cerge-Henderson (So.)
Francis Kallon (R-Sr.)
Brentavious Glanton (R-Fr.)
SDE Rod Rook-Chungong (R-Sr.) Desmond Branch (R-So.)
OLB P.J. Davis (Sr.) Vic Alexander (So.)
ILB Brant Mitchell (So.) Chase Alford (R-Jr.)
OLB* Terrell Lewis (Jr.) David Curry (R-Fr.)
NB* Lawrence Austin (Jr.) Jarett Cole (Fr.)
CB Step Durham (Jr.) Meiko Dotson (R-Fr.)
FS A.J. Gray (So.) Jalen Johnson (R-So.)
SS Corey Griffin (R-Jr.) Shaun Kagawa (Jr.)
CB Lance Austin (Jr.) Lamont Simmons (R-So.)

I acknowledge this depth chart will not be consistent with those in our individual position group previews. 
* The second OLB spot will be replaced with the NB in a 4-2-5 nickel scheme.

What to Expect

While Georgia Tech’s base defense is ostensibly a 4-3 scheme, they mostly played out of a nickel formation last season. This is a common trend in college football as defenses try and find ways to keep up with the fast-paced spread offenses that are becoming more and more the norm. A nickel scheme calls for five defensive backs to be on the field at a given time which could provide quite the strain on a young secondary. To help alleviate that strain, the defensive line will need to provide a better pass rush than it has in years past. The pieces for a better pass rush are in place and the line is deep, but it may take some time to find the right combination to best attack the quarterback and stop the run. KeShun Freeman seems to be a lock on the weakside and Patrick Gamble will play somewhere but where and who the other two linemen will be is up in the air.

The gap between the floor and ceiling for this defense is immense. Many unknown quantities will be asked to step into starring roles. If nothing clicks, this could be one of the worst defenses in the ACC, which would force the offense to return to 2014 levels to keep games competitive. However, if everyone plays to potential – if Anree Saint-Amour is an ace pass rush specialist, if Brandon Adams is a monster plugging up the middle, if Step Durham is everything he was advertised to be and more, if someone emerges at strongside DE who can both rush the passer and stop the run, if all this and more happens this year’s Yellow Jacket defense could be better than last year. In all likelihood, it will fall somewhere in the middle. Some players will emerge as stars, while at other positions the coaching staff will spend all year trying to find someone who can play at the level of an ACC starter. The defense’s peak may still be a year or two away, but we should get a glimpse of that future in 2016.