It’s rare for a team to essentially lose an entire unit to graduation, and it usually results in a major drop-off in performance the following year. All things considered, though, Tech is in reasonably good shape for a team that is replacing four longtime starters in the secondary. Over the past two seasons, Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof has made an effort to get young defensive backs onto the field frequently, helping to keep the veterans fresh while also getting the youngsters some valuable playing time.
The coming season will make it clear whether or not that experience has paid off. Tech’s defense will be tested early and often by some of the nation’s most talented quarterbacks, including Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Miami’s Brad Kaaya in back-to-back games. Having a secondary that maintains assignments and avoids mistakes will be critical—particularly if the front seven struggles to generate a pass rush once again.
The Main Contenders
Finding the top candidates for the starting jobs is surprisingly easy. Five players in the secondary have seen significant playing time to date, and those five have the inside track to start in 2016.
At cornerback, juniors Step Durham and Lance Austin—the primary backups in each of the past two seasons—are in line to start. Durham, who will line up as the boundary corner, has played in 16 career games, recording 11 tackles and one pass breakup. Austin is best known for a certain memorable special teams play from last October, but he is also the most experienced returning corner, having played in 24 games over the past two seasons. The smaller Austin will play the field side, but he has seen time at both corner positions in his career.
The youngest projected starter in the defensive backfield is sophomore free safety A.J. Gray, who had a tremendous rookie season in both coverage and run support and faces high expectations—Paul Johnson himself hyped Gray’s spring camp performance and his potential as a player at ACC Media Days in July. The likely starter at strong safety is Corey Griffin, one of the few members of the 2013 recruiting class still on the team. Griffin has seen action in all but one game over the past two seasons and has 36 tackles in 25 career games.
Rounding out the likely starting secondary will be Austin’s twin brother, Lawrence Austin, who is the only returning starter in the secondary. Lawrence Austin made nine starts at nickel corner a year ago and played in every game, providing tight man coverage and surprisingly effective run support for a 5-foot-9 defensive back.
In the Mix
Beyond the five seasoned defensive backs, things are less cut-and-dry, as the other candidates for playing time have seen the field very little up to now (if at all).
The backup corner battle has come down to three players who have yet to see a collegiate snap: redshirt sophomore Lamont Simmons, who sat out last season after transferring from USC, and redshirt freshmen Dorian Walker and Meiko Dotson. As it stands, Simmons and Walker are likely to be the primary backups at boundary and field corner, respectively. Neither is a serious threat to win a starting job at this point, but Simmons’ size (listed height of 6-foot-2) and Walker’s speed (sub-4.4 second times in the 40-yard dash) could make them valuable in games where a very tall or fast receiver poses matchup problems for Durham and Lance Austin.
At safety, Jalen Johnson and Shaun Kagawa are next up. Johnson is an intriguing prospect who has bounced between positions and has never lined up on defense in a game; however, he should remain in the secondary going forward, and his strong fall camp has secured him a spot in the nickel corner rotation. Kagawa’s playing time has been mostly confined to special teams, but he has spent two years in the system and should be a viable reserve safety.
Dotson should see at least the occasional series at cornerback, particularly early on, and it’s not out of the question that he moves up on the depth chart as the season progresses. Christian Campbell created a stir (in a good way) when he dished out some big hits in the spring game after converting from quarterback just weeks earlier, but since then he has not been able to work his way up the depth chart. He’s only a redshirt freshman, so more time at the position will help him. The two true freshmen, cornerback Ajani Kerr and nickel corner Jarett Cole, have not cracked the two-deep and appear destined to redshirt.
What to Expect
The depth chart may change depending on how the battle for the nickel back job plays out, but if the season began today, the secondary would look like this:
|Position||First String||Second String|
|BCB||Step Durham (Jr.)||Lamont Simmons (R-So.)|
|FCB||Lance Austin (Jr.)||Dorian Walker (R-Fr.)|
|FS||A.J. Gray (So.)||Shaun Kagawa (Jr.)|
|SS||Corey Griffin (R-Jr.)||Lawrence Austin (Jr.)|
|NB||Lawrence Austin (Jr.)||Jalen Johnson (R-So.)|
Predicting the secondary’s performance is essentially guesswork, partly because of the massive overhaul and partly because so much depends on whether or not the front seven can generate a potent pass rush. Expect Roof to rely heavily on conservative coverage schemes, with the corners and safeties mostly dropping into soft zones to prevent big plays. Still, if Tech is able to pressure opposing quarterbacks into forcing throws, the defensive backs are seasoned enough to capitalize and force turnovers.
The real question is how Tech will fare if any of the starters get hurt, or even when they need a breather early in the season. As a rule, whenever one or more of the second-stringers are on the field, expect them to be tested repeatedly.