Spring practice comes to a close with the annual T-Day spring game on Friday, April 20, which will mark the first time Tech will play in front of the public eye since the 2017 season finale in November. Between new defensive coordinator Nate Woody, the return of the 3-4 alignment, and several new starters in the secondary, the defense will collectively be a major area of interest... but after last year’s stumbles, there are also plenty of lingering questions on offense and special teams. Here are some names and areas to watch during Friday night’s game.
Defensive Line Rotation Emerging
With the switch to a 3-4 front, Tech’s linemen have had their hands full this spring adapting to their new roles, and this will be the first glimpse of their progress to date.
The most interesting position to watch (perhaps on the entire field) will be nose tackle, a crucial role where several players have gotten looks. Brandon Adams is a natural fit at the nose, and veterans Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Brentavious Glanton have lined up there too... but the nose tackle who has made the most noise so far has been redshirt sophomore Chris Martin, who barely played as a reserve last season. All four should see action in the spring game; at this stage it’s anyone’s guess who has the best shot to start, but having a deep rotation at the nose wouldn’t exactly be a bad thing.
At defensive end, seniors Desmond Branch and Anree Saint-Amour seem to be the leaders in the clubhouse. They were two of Tech’s most disruptive linemen a year ago, and since Woody’s scheme prioritizes quickness at the DE spots, their skills should translate well to the new scheme. Meanwhile, the depth behind them is up for grabs. Sophomore Antwan Owens, previously a defensive tackle in the 4-3/4-2-5 scheme, and redshirt senior Tyler Merriweather should be in the mix. One promising candidate, early enrollee T.K. Chimedza, has been able to practice while recovering from surgery, but he has been limited in practice and likely will not take the field on Friday.
Finding Some Outside Linebackers
The two inside linebacker positions seem pretty well set, as Tech returns a pair of stalwarts in senior Brant Mitchell and sophomore Bruce Jordan-Swilling and plenty of veterans to back them up. Outside linebacker, meanwhile, is a huge question mark. The 3-4 OLB spots are demanding and are pivotal to the success of the defense, so defensive coordinator Nate Woody has taken nearly every defensive player who could conceivably be a fit at OLB and had them line up there in practice.
As it stands, senior Victor Alexander appears to be locked in as one starter. At 5-foot-10, Alexander does not have ideal length for the position, but he’s a seasoned veteran who’s at his best when he gets to attack the backfield. In that respect, he should benefit from Woody’s aggressive scheme, where he’ll be used early and often as an edge rusher. Less clear is the identity of the other OLB starter, but one clear candidate is sophomore Jaquan Henderson, who could start across from Alexander on the first team. Henderson will need to add a lot of muscle to be a viable starting linebacker, but his speed and coverage skills make him an ideal fit otherwise.
Beyond that, it will be telling to see who even lines up at OLB. Most of the reserve safeties and ILBs have been given a look on the outside in recent weeks. To that end, it would not be a shocker to see one of the reserve ILBs, like David Curry or Tyler Cooksey, or one of the young safeties, such as Gentry Bonds or Kaleb Oliver, ultimately end up at OLB in the new scheme. It’s even possible that those reserves could rotate between OLB and their normal positions over the course of the spring game; while it’s really just a scrimmage, the game will be helpful for Woody to figure out where everyone best fits in the new scheme.
New Faces in the Secondary
The lone returning starter in the secondary, rising senior safety A.J. Gray, is sitting out spring practice. So is fellow veteran safety Jalen Johnson. That leaves the competition for playing time wide open across the entire defensive backfield, and given how heavily Tech has recruited defensive backs recently, expect plenty of new faces to see action on Friday. For that reason, this should be one of the more entertaining position groups to follow.
Lamont Simmons and Ajani Kerr should get the nod at cornerback for the first-team defense. They’re the only two returning corners with any significant experience. Tre Swilling and Jaytlin Askew seem most likely to start for the second-team defense at boundary and field corner, respectively. Redshirt freshman Dameon Williams will be in the mix as well, and redshirt sophomore Jarett Cole could shift to corner in the new scheme.
At safety, the only seasoned player who will be out there on Friday is Christian Campbell, who spelled Gray as a reserve last season and could start at either safety spot. None of the other safeties have any significant experience, so expect Bonds, Oliver, Avery Showell, Tariq Carpenter, and early enrollee Charlie Thomas to all get looks at safety during the game. The most telling sign will be which players line up as starters—and particularly which one lines up next to Campbell with the first team.
The elephant in the room is that they’ll be going up against a run-heavy offense, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the first-team and second-team offenses end up throwing a lot on Friday. Starting quarterback TaQuon Marshall needs to work on his passing accuracy, and backup Lucas Johnson has dealt with minor injuries that have limited his ability to run the option game. So there might be plenty of opportunities to see the defensive backs in coverage... though seeing them in run support will also be insightful.
Offensive Tackle Play
Compared to previous years, the A-backs were not a huge factor in the run game a year ago. This was in part because of Marshall’s tendency to keep the ball when in doubt, but the bigger issue was extremely inconsistent perimeter blocking by the offensive tackles. The offense has a collection of dangerous skill position players who can do serious damage on the perimeter, but improved tackle play is essential for that to happen.
Fifth-year senior Andrew Marshall, one of Tech’s better linemen when healthy, has been sitting out spring practice while recovering from an injury that caused him to miss most of last season. That leaves Jahaziel Lee, Will Bryan, Jake Stickler, and former walk-on Bailey Ivemeyer to hold down the fort on Friday. Redshirt freshmen Zach Quinney and Charlie Clark should also see some action on Friday at tackle, and Ole Miss transfer Jack DeFoor seems likely to end up there as well—though it remains unclear if he’ll be cleared to play this fall. Ideally, Tech will end up with enough viable tackles that Bryan can move back to right guard, where he’s a more natural fit, but for now the senior will line up on the outside.
Johnson has had little praise for the offensive line this spring, which does not bode particularly well for depth. The line as a whole will be worth monitoring, but finding a good group of tackles will be particularly important for the offense’s success.
Offensive Skill Position Depth
The good news on offense is that Tech will enter the fall with clear starters at every skill position: Marshall at QB, KirVonte Benson at B-back, Brad Stewart and Jalen Camp at wide receiver, and some combination of Clinton Lynch, Qua Searcy, and Nate Cottrell at A-back. What’s less clear is who will fill out the rest of the depth chart.
Lucas Johnson will probably be the backup QB and Jerry Howard will probably be the backup B-back, but they’re getting pushed in camp by Tobias Oliver and Jordan Ponchez-Mason, respectively. The Jackets could run with a rotation of just those top three A-backs, but ideally one more will be in the regular rotation... which could be Ponchez-Mason, Omahri Jarrett, or Xavier Gantt. At receiver, Stephen Dolphus seems to have a leg up to be the third wideout, but he’s facing stiff competition from Adonicas Sanders and Jair Hawkins-Anderson. While the questions persist, the good news is that we should get to see every player listed in this paragraph during the game.
Aside from punter Pressley Harvin, special teams was a massive problem area for Tech a year ago. There are no kickoffs or returns in the spring game, so the status of the kick and punt return (and coverage) units will largely remain a mystery until the fall... but Friday’s game could at least shed some light on the kicking situation.
Brenton King returns as the presumed starting kicker; his main competitor, Shawn Davis, is out for the spring. King connected on five of his six field goal attempts a year ago, but range remains a big question mark for the rising sophomore. His season long was 42 yards (which corresponds to the 25-yard line on the field), and on multiple occasions Tech went for it on fourth and medium/long rather than attempt a moderately long field goal. If King can add at least a few yards to his effective range, that will take some pressure off the offense, so with luck he’ll get a chance to try a couple long field goals.