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100 Days to Kickoff: Position Previews - Defensive Line

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Is this year the Yellow Jackets rediscover an effective pass rush?

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Countdown to Kickoff: 48 Days

As the 100 Days to Kickoff series nears the midway point, this week will feature a series of position previews across the roster. These articles will go position-by-position to look at players that have departed, players that return from a year ago, new faces at the position, and the overall outlook for the 2017 season. The overall goal is to examine what the depth chart will look like next season and look at realistic expectations for each position group.

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Departures

The Yellow Jackets lose three players who made multiple starts along the defensive line in 2016. Two, DT Patrick Gamble and DE Rod Rook-Chungong started all 13 games. Gamble was Georgia Tech’s most productive defensive lineman in 2016, leading the team with 7.5 sacks and 10.5 TFL. His 58 tackles led all linemen and ranked 5th on the team. Rook-Chungong started every game at strong-side defensive end and though he didn’t put up gaudy numbers he was effective holding the line in the run game. DT Francis Kallon, another graduate, made 6 starts alongside Gamble on the interior of the line. He primarily played nose tackle and performed adequately, though never quite lived up to his recruiting hype.

In addition to the three graduates, two defensive linemen transferred out of the program earlier this offseason. The biggest name to transfer was defensive end Jordan Woods. One of the highest ranked recruits in the Paul Johnson era, Woods’s Yellow Jacket career ended before it really began. Woods redshirted last year after he suffered a season-ending injury before the start of his freshman season. The other transfer from the defensive line was Trent Sellers. A member of the 2015 recruiting class, Sellers played in just one game last season and did not record any stats.

Returnees

The Yellow Jackets return four defensive ends from the 2016 team, including three who were significant members of the line rotation. KeShun Freeman made his first start in 2014 against Georgia Southern and hasn’t left the starting line since. Unfortunately, the veteran has had trouble living up to his outstanding freshman campaign. Last year he recorded just half a sack and saw his tackle total decrease for the third consecutive year. Hot on Freeman’s heels for playing time is junior pass rush specialist Anree Saint-Amour. The fast end played primarily in pass situations in 2016, finishing second on the team with 4 sacks. On the opposite side of the line Antonio Simmons looked the part of a disruptive pass rusher in 2016 but put up a strangely empty stat line, with his only sack coming in the season opener. Additionally, redshirt junior Tyler Merriweather returns after seeing limited playing time last season, appearing in just four games.

Four returning players will be competing for playing time on the interior of the defensive line in 2017. Here at FTRS, we’ve already argued the case for each of the four to start this season. Junior Kyle Cerge-Henderson is the most experienced of the four and has good agility for his size. Redshirt junior Desmond Branch brings an intriguing set of pass rush moves coupled with good size and strength. Redshirt sophomore Brentavious Glanton brings a similar skill set to Branch but in larger package, weighing in at 293 to Branch’s 270. Then there’s the big man that so many fans are excited to see holding down the middle of the line, sophomore Brandon Adams. In addition to those four, former 3-star prospect Chris Martin will get his first chance at playing time coming off of his redshirt freshman season.

Finally, a group of walk-ons will return to provide depth and maybe surprise and earn some playing time. Redshirt Freshman Josh White was ranked as high as 3-stars by some recruiting services but decided to join the Yellow Jackets as a preferred walk on. His classmate, Tyler Vernon, followed a similar path and will look to earn his first playing time this season. Rounding out the walk-on DLs are redshirt sophomore Nick Williams and redshirt freshman Djimon Brooks.

Newcomers

The 2017 Georgia Tech recruiting class contained three defensive linemen. Cortez Alston, a 3-star defensive end, was the highest ranked by the 247 composite. A local kid from the Westminster School, Alston is a skilled defensive end who could potentially bulk up and move to an interior position. Kelton Dawson was another 3-star prospect who brings plenty of versatility to the table. He played all over the line in high school, but will likely be a strongside end at the college level. Finally, 3-star defensive tackle Antwan Owens was a late addition to the recruiting class, flipping from UCF in January. Owens needs to bulk up some to fit the profile of the typical college defensive tackle so he may start off playing an end, following a path similar to Patrick Gamble.

In addition to the three scholarship newcomers, DL Josh Tukes will join the team as a preferred walk-on. Tukes was a high school teammate of fellow newcomer Jaquan Henderson at Newton High School.

What to Expect

Georgia Tech’s defensive line has generally been a weak point for sometime now. The Yellow Jackets just flat out don’t get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On most teams, you’d expect the primary pass rushers to be the defensive ends but since Jeremiah Attaochu’s graduation, Tech’s most successful rushers have been interior linemen in Adam Gotsis and Patrick Gamble. Finding a defensive end that can replicate the success of Attaochu or Derrick Morgan and Michael Johnson before him is critical to the Jackets’ chances of improving as a defensive unit. The problem is that player might not be on the current roster.

KeShun Freeman is likely to be voted a team captain and is an important leadership presence but if he doesn’t regain his Freshman All-American form it might be time to see how someone like Anree Saint-Amour can hold up in the weakside DE starting role. Saint-Amour has looked good at times but his role has largely been limited to obvious passing situations. How will he hold up against the run? On the opposite side of the line, Antonio Simmons is slated to take over for Rod Rook-Chungong at strongside DE and should be able to replace his production without too many issues. Simmons’ backup is a big question mark and could provide an opportunity for a freshman like Cortez Alston or Kelton Dawson to get some playing time.

The interior of the line is a huge question mark following the departure of Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon. Right now, I’d pencil in Kyle Cerge-Henderson as a starter at one spot or another, but he’s not really a prototypical player at either tackle position. Brandon Adams is bigger, a little bit longer, and stronger and showed a lot of promise in last season in short yardage situations. If he can expand his role to be an every down player, he could be a transformative force for Tech’s defense. If Adams can snag the starting nose tackle job (still a big if for now) would the coaches move Cerge-Henderson over to the three-technique? He has some good pass rushing moves but has largely played one-technique thus far at Tech. Assuming Cerge-Henderson starts the season as the number one one-technique tackle, that leaves a big question mark at the three-technique. Desmond Branch seems primed to take that role as he played with the first team defense in the Spring Game, but the role is by no means locked up.

Projected Depth Chart

Projected Defensive Line

Position First Team Second Team
Position First Team Second Team
WDE KeShun Freeman (Sr.) Anree Saint-Amour (Jr.)
NT Kyle Cerge-Henderson (Jr.) Brandon Adams (So.)
DT Desmond Branch (R-Jr.) Brentavious Glanton (R-So.)
SDE Antonio Simmons (Sr.) Tyler Merriweather (R-Jr.)