Countdown to Kickoff: 45 days
Over the last five or so years, the Tech secondary has settled into an interesting pattern: lean on a senior-heavy secondary in odd-numbered years, then replace just about everyone and start fresh in even-numbered years. That trend will continue in the 2018 season, as new defensive coordinator Nate Woody will inherit a defensive backfield that will feature new a starter at every position. He’ll have plenty of talent to play with; the question will be whether Woody can put the defensive backs in position to make impact plays. If he can, this fairly young unit is skilled enough on paper to deliver them.
In a write-up about his defense at Wofford from several years ago, Woody describes a fairly typical approach for the secondary: a boundary corner who plays the short side of the field closer to the sideline, a field corner on the opposite side who has to cover more ground, a strong safety supporting the field side, and a free safety playing over the top and supporting the boundary as needed. The boundary receiver in any offense tends to have a more complex route tree, so the boundary corner needs to be especially adept in coverage; the field corner, meanwhile, needs to be fast enough to stick with his man over a larger swath of the field. The free safety is generally tasked with patrolling “center field” while the strong safety has more responsibilities in run support, but the safeties’ actual responsibilities depend on the situation and the playcall and will often overlap.
In general, Woody leaned on the boundary/field philosophy at Appalachian State, but he adapted as needed. Against Wake Forest, for example, top cornerback Clifton Duck lined up on the boundary when ASU lined up in their base 3-4 set, but when they went to a 3-3-5 nickel package, Duck typically shifted into the slot. As offenses have evolved to rely more heavily on spread formations with multiple receivers, Woody has shifted to using nickel and dime packages more often, and that will carry over to Tech—but expect the 3-4 to remain the primary formation whenever it’s viable.
A quintet of two-year starters are all gone. Cornerbacks Step Durham and Lance Austin, nickel corner Lawrence Austin, and strong safety Corey Griffin have all used up their eligibility. Free safety A.J. Gray, who was set to anchor the secondary in 2018, was instead forced to end his career early due to a medical condition.
The group had combined for 127 starts in their careers. They were far from perfect as a unit, but there’s no way around the fact that Tech is losing a wealth of experience in the secondary.
Tech brings back two cornerbacks with notable game experience. Redshirt senior Lamont Simmons has been a top backup for the past two seasons, and Ajani Kerr earned more and more playing time as a redshirt freshman as last season went on, eventually delivering a fourth-down pass breakup in single coverage that sealed the Jackets’ victory over Virginia Tech. Along with those two, rising sophomore Jaytlin Askew saw action on special teams last season, and Tre Swilling and Dameon Williams enter the mix after redshirting in 2017.
Safety is in a similar situation: two players with game experience for Tech and a lot of young reserves. The two are redshirt senior Jalen Johnson, who often stepped in at nickel corner over the past two seasons, and Christian Campbell, the primary backup to Gray who got the start against Virginia last season. Exactly who else is at safety is a bit muddled, as several players have gotten looks at both safety and outside linebacker this offseason... and even Johnson was listed as DB/LB on the recently updated roster. As it stands, though, the potential backups are redshirt sophomore Jarett Cole, sophomore Tariq Carpenter, and redshirt freshmen Kaleb Oliver, Avery Showell, and Gentry Bonds.
The Jackets followed up the deep 2017 defensive back class with another large crop of prospects in 2018. Atop the list is consensus four-star signee Jaylon King, a versatile player who will start out as a cornerback but could shift to free safety if needed. Three-star prospects Zamari Walton and Jaylen Jackson also appear slated for cornerback, while Juanyeh Thomas will likely end up at safety. Another freshman, early enrollee Charlie Thomas, was initially recruited as a defensive back but currently appears to be slated for outside linebacker.
On top of the recruits, Tech picked up some much-needed experience in the form of graduate transfer Malik Rivera, who started 18 games at safety over the past two seasons for Wofford at the FCS level. New safeties coach Shiel Wood was Wofford’s defensive coordinator last season and personally coached the safeties, so Rivera’s familiarity with his position coach and the scheme should help him adapt to his new environment—and will give Tech a veteran ideally suited to mentor the young defensive backs.
Position Outlook: Cornerback
Projected Starters: Ajani Kerr (boundary), Lamont Simmons (field)
Key Reserves: Jaytlin Askew, Tre Swilling, Dameon Williams, Jaylon King
As the two most seasoned corners, Kerr and Simmons are the clear favorites to start this fall. Both of them bring ideal length and good man coverage skills to the table, which should serve them well in a (presumably) aggressive scheme. Simmons has seen plenty of relief action at both corner positions, while Kerr has lined up primarily on the boundary, so it seems likely that the senior will take the field spot. That said, the corner spots are similar enough that the duo could very reasonably cross-train at both positions to give Woody some flexibility.
The second-string spots are free for the taking, but expect Swilling and Askew to be the primary backups at boundary and field corner, respectively, as both found their way onto the depth chart last season as reserves. Their fellow 2017 signee, Williams, could easily move past either of them, and the true freshman King would be an intriguing option as a nickel/dime package sub.
Position Outlook: Safety
Projected Starters: Christian Campbell (free), Jalen Johnson (strong)
Key Reserves: Kaleb Oliver, Malik Rivera, Tariq Carpenter, Avery Showell
Campbell is the closest thing to a lock at either safety spot. The former quarterback had a steep learning curve last season, but now he has emerged as a leader in a fairly young secondary. Johnson is the most seasoned defensive back on the roster and has ideal size for a strong safety, but he also missed the spring with an injury, so he’ll be playing catch-up as he tries to pick up the new scheme during fall camp... and there’s a chance he’ll ultimately be moving to field linebacker, a completely new position. If that happens, the competition for the second safety spot will be wide open.
The fluidity between safety and outside linebacker in the spring—which will likely continue into the fall—makes the depth at safety hard to predict. For now, it seems that Bonds will get a look at field OLB, but he’s a strong candidate to play at either safety spot if he remains there. Barring that, Oliver is the most athletic option among the young reserves, and Carpenter has already seen action on special teams.
One interesting possibility would be for Johnson to line up at strong safety in the base 3-4 and move to nickel corner when Tech goes to a 3-3-5 or 3-2-6 package, with Rivera or another player stepping in at safety.
It’s never easy to replace every starter in a unit, and that will absolutely be true for the Tech secondary this fall. The presumed replacement at every position has experience in reserve duty, and plenty of talented young players are waiting in the wings, but none of that is a guarantee for success. The worst-case scenario is that the players are slow to adapt to the new scheme, and Tech struggles for much of the season with poor communication and coverage breakdowns... but the best-case scenario is that improved pressure from the front seven gives the defensive backs more opportunities to make impact plays, and a talented group of players is able to capitalize on those chances. Only time will tell which comes to pass.