Heading into the offseason, the expectation was that rising senior safety A.J. Gray would be back to anchor a young secondary that was replacing a senior starter at every other position... and then came the unfortunate news that Gray had been diagnosed with a heart condition and would have to end his football career early.
As a result, the Tech secondary will have to find new starters across the board next season. And unlike cornerback, where Ajani Kerr and Lamont Simmons seem poised to step in as the new starters, the situation at safety is much more fluid. The Jackets have a couple relatively seasoned reserves who have the edge heading into camp, but the door is wide open for one or more younger players to crack the rotation—or even win a starting job.
Christian Campbell (RS junior)
Of all the returning players, Campbell seems like the safest bet to start at free safety. He served as Gray’s primary backup a year ago and only recorded nine tackles, but he saw plenty of action as a reserve safety (including a start at free safety against Virginia when Gray was injured) and in the punt coverage unit.
The best sample of Campbell’s playing ability comes from that start against Virginia, where he recorded five tackles and a pass breakup. His first tackle of the game flashed his tackling form as he helped to stop receiver Doni Dowling just shy of the marker:
Campbell shows good tackling form in the open field, going in low and attempting to wrap up Dowling’s legs to pull him down. He doesn’t square up perfectly, but he does slow him down just as Victor Alexander arrives to finish the job.
In terms of coverage, Campbell spent most of his afternoon in deep zones, but he did get to play up on occasion—and in one instance, while playing a short zone on the boundary side, he made a drive-ending breakup. If any of the safeties are to be considered anything close to a lock to start (barring injury), Campbell is the best bet. He’s a promising athlete who should grow into his role quickly.
Jalen Johnson (RS senior)
Johnson has seen the field even more than Campbell in his career, having been the primary backup to Lawrence Austin at nickel corner for the past two seasons, and he has to be the top candidate to step in at safety. He faces two issues, though, that make him less of a lock to start. The smaller one is that he’ll have to adjust to a new position after playing the nickel, which on its own is not a major concern since he’s a fifth-year senior who has spent time at safety in the past. The bigger issue is that Johnson sat out the spring with an injury, which has set him back in learning the new defensive scheme and in developing chemistry with his fellow defensive backs.
Still, as the most seasoned returning safety—and as a player who pushed his way into a rotation with Austin, a third-year starter who had previously dominated playing time—Johnson remains the top candidate to take over for the departed Corey Griffin at strong safety.
In the Mix
Kaleb Oliver (RS freshman)
A Rivals four-star prospect in the 2017 class, Oliver redshirted as a freshman and has a good shot to find his way onto the depth chart this fall. At a listed height of 6-foot-4, he’s the tallest player in the secondary and could profile at either safety position; strong safety would be more ideal, as his high school film suggests that he thrives when in position to make plays close to the line of scrimmage.
On that note, if Oliver adds some weight, he could be an ideal candidate to play outside linebacker, and he is one of several players whom defensive coordinator Nate Woody has evaluated at both safety and outside linebacker. For now, he seems slated for the secondary, but as with roughly half the OLBs and safeties, that is subject to change between now and the start of the season.
Tariq Carpenter (sophomore)
Carpenter saw some special teams action as a true freshman last season, appearing in six games and recording two tackles. As a prospect, he wasn’t as highly rated as Oliver; he was rated only a two-star prospect on Rivals and a low three-star on the 247Sports Composite. On the practice field, though, he has drawn praise from teammates and seems to be in a similar situation to that of Oliver: a young player who has yet to settle in at a position but has the talent to make an impact wherever he ends up.
Avery Showell (RS freshman)
Another prospect from the deep 2017 secondary class, Showell is yet another player who has gotten looks at OLB and safety but seems to be slated for the secondary. He’s a physical player who should push for playing time at strong safety, as—like Oliver and Carpenter—he does some of his best work when playing up in the box.
Jarett Cole (RS sophomore)
Cole is an interesting case; he’s too small to be considered at linebacker, but it’s also unclear where he best fits into the secondary. He was recruited in 2016 to play nickel corner in Ted Roof’s scheme, but Nate Woody plans to use a base formation with four defensive backs. It’s almost certain that Woody will deploy nickel and dime packages, and Cole could slide into one of those roles, but he could also be a viable free safety, particularly since depth is a question mark there.
Jaylon King (freshman)
The top-rated defensive prospect in Tech’s 2018 class, King is a versatile player who could fit just about anywhere in the secondary. Corner might be the most ideal fit for him, but in the short term, his skillset would probably be most useful at free safety. Even though he did not enroll early, it would not be a surprise if King finds his way onto the two-deep by midseason.
Juanyeh Thomas (freshman)
Thomas seems like a good candidate to make an impact on special teams as a true freshman, and his combination of length (he’s 6-foot-3) and speed could help him earn playing time at safety as well. He could reasonably end up at either safety spot.