Days to Kickoff: 46 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.
A year ago at this time, the secondary was facing some major questions as the unit looked to replace four starters who had 130 career starts between them. This year is a bit less uncertain, to say the least: nearly every major contributor from a year ago is back, including all five starters, and the Jackets brought in several highly-regarded defensive back prospects in their latest recruiting class. With seasoned veterans anchoring the unit and talented rookies waiting in the wings, the secondary should be a strength for Tech in 2017 and is well-positioned for the years ahead.
The Jackets lost Dorian Walker and Meiko Dotson, a pair of second-year defensive backs, to transfers soon after the regular season wrapped up. Walker was the second-string field corner last season and saw action in all 12 regular-season games, recording three tackles and snagging an interception against Vanderbilt. Dotson also played in 12 games, mainly on special teams, and had two tackles. Both dropped down from the FBS level, transferring to FCS program Kennesaw State and Garden City CC in Kansas, respectively. Their departures cut into the short-term secondary depth, but with Tech having added eight defensive backs in the past two recruiting classes, the long-term ramifications are minor.
Every starter from a year ago is back, and four of the five are seniors, so the Jackets will have plenty of veteran leadership in the secondary this fall.
Step Durham returns as the starter at boundary corner. Despite being a starter last year and a top reserve in the two years prior, Durham has just seven passes defensed and no interceptions in his career, but for a cornerback, that can be the highest form of praise. The senior is effective in both man and zone coverage, and the result is that he rarely gets targeted in the passing game.
Across from Durham is Lance Austin, a fellow senior who will be a second-year starter at field corner. Austin is quicker than Durham but is smaller and less polished in coverage, so opposing teams tend to throw in Austin’s direction more. That said, he has emerged as one of the defense’s top playmakers, recording a team-high 12 pass breakups and game-saving interceptions against both Virginia and UGA last season. Austin will likely continue to be targeted often in 2017, but he can punish quarterbacks who make mistakes.
A.J. Gray, the lone junior among the returning starters, is entrenched at free safety. Ted Roof’s conservative scheme resulted in Gray playing center field frequently a year ago, limiting his ability to make impact plays, but he still finished third on the team with 72 tackles. His counterpart at strong safety, Corey Griffin, played up in the box more and was always around the ball in 2016. On top of his team-leading 82 tackles, the redshirt senior recorded five tackles for loss, two interceptions, three pass breakups, and a sack, and he led all ACC defensive backs in Pro Football Focus’s Playmaker Index. Gray and Griffin are proven commodities in both run support and pass coverage, and their presence on the back line will be crucial in a year when Tech has question marks up front on defense.
The last returning starter is senior nickel back Lawrence Austin, who tied his brother Lance for the team lead with three interceptions—two of which came in the road win at Virginia Tech. At just 5-foot-9 and 187 pounds, he’s fairly small for a position that fuses safety and linebacker responsibilities, but he tackles well for his size and has proven to be up to the task over the past two seasons.
A few key reserves from last season return as well. Chief among them is redshirt junior cornerback Lamont Simmons, who is particularly skilled in man coverage and--at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds—has the size to match up with big opposing receivers. Ajani Kerr has also entered the mix at corner after redshirting last season. At safety, senior Shaun Kagawa is the most experienced reserve, and redshirt sophomore Christian Campbell has shown hard-hitting potential when healthy. Redshirt junior Jalen Johnson will spell Lawrence Austin at the nickel on occasion, and redshirt freshman Jarett Cole will battle for playing time.
The coaching staff made defensive backs a major priority last offseason, and they brought in a major haul with seven players, three of whom were rated four-star recruits on Rivals. Jaytlin Askew, Tre Swilling, and Dameon Williams will line up at cornerback; Gentry Bonds, Tariq Carpenter, and Avery Showell are likely to play safety; and Kaleb Oliver should get a look at nickel back. There could be some shuffling of positions this fall or in the future—plenty of the rookies are versatile enough to play at multiple spots.
Askew and Bonds enrolled early and saw action in the spring game, so they have a slight edge in earning playing time this fall. However, each player brings a unique skillset to the table, and any of the seven could work his way onto the field.
What to Expect
The starters are all but set in stone. Durham and Lance Austin will play the corners, Gray and Griffin will be the safeties, and Lawrence Austin will line up at the nickel when Tech goes to a 4-2-5 look. There’s an outside chance that Simmons or Johnson finds a way into the starting lineup, but even otherwise, those two will play early and often as reserves.
The starters got the lion’s share of playing time last season, but this fall should be more similar to 2014 and 2015, when the veteran starters regularly ceded snaps to younger players. At corner, the departures of Walker and Dotson have left the door open for the freshmen—particularly at field corner, where Askew and likely Williams will be lining up. It’s a virtual certainty that at least one or two of the true freshmen will play this year, and the redshirt freshman Kerr will be in the mix as well. At safety, where there is room for a freshman to crack the two-deep, Bonds seems to have the edge as an early enrollee and the highest-rated signee of the three. Oliver and Cole will battle for playing time at the nickel; they’re both behind two upperclassmen, though, so one of them may be moved to safety to increase their odds of getting on the field.
With experienced veterans leading the way and talented newcomers entering the mix at every position, the secondary is one of Tech’s deepest position groups heading into 2017. As is the case with any defense, though, their performance will depend heavily on the performance of the front seven. A year ago, Tech’s front seven struggled to get leverage against opposing linemen on running plays and to generate pressure in the pass rush; the result was that the safeties had to play an outsized role in run support, and the defensive backs were often picked apart by quarterbacks who had plenty of time to throw. If the front seven can improve in one or both of those areas, Roof would be more inclined to give his defensive backs more aggressive assignments, freeing them up to attack the ball and force more turnovers.
Projected Depth Chart
2017 Depth Chart
|Position||First String||Second String||Third String|
|Position||First String||Second String||Third String|
|BCB||Step Durham (Sr.)||Lamont Simmons (R-Jr.)||Tre Swilling (Fr.)|
|FCB||Lance Austin (Sr.)||Jaytlin Askew (Fr.)||Ajani Kerr (R-Fr.)|
|FS||A.J. Gray (Jr.)||Shaun Kagawa (Sr.)||Jarett Cole (R-Fr.)|
|SS||Corey Griffin (R-Sr.)||Gentry Bonds (Fr.)||Christian Campbell (R-So.)|
|NB||Lawrence Austin (Sr.)||Jalen Johnson (R-Jr.)||Kaleb Oliver (Fr.)|
(Author’s note: the original version of this article left out true freshman cornerback Dameon Williams, which was nothing more than an unfortunate oversight. Williams is very much in the mix to play this fall.)