The first year of the Geoff Collins era was... not a particularly memorable one in any phase of the game. That said, the Collins hire was always about building toward the future, and in that regard, there’s plenty of good news. Tech’s defense returns almost every key contributor next season and adds a few promising recruits and transfers. There’s still potential for players to depart this offseason and shake things up, but on the surface it looks like nearly every component of Tech’s defense is set to improve in 2020—just in time for the team to go up against a much tougher schedule.
Note: the ends who are primarily pass rushers will be included here and referred to as Edge DEs, and the ends who are more focused on run support will be referred to as Base DEs.
Of all the positions on the team, defensive end could be the one that sees the most improvement. Edge DEs Jordan Domineck, Sylvain Yondjouen, Jaquan Henderson, and Chico Bennett are all back; they weren’t a particularly productive group in 2019, combining for just 2.5 sacks and four QB hurries, but it wasn’t the worst showing given that all but Henderson were freshmen and Bennett and Domineck missed several games due to injuries. This will still be a young unit in 2020, but the returning players should be able to build on a full season of experience.
The most important news might be at Base DE, where Antonneous Clayton, a Florida transfer and former five-star recruit, will be eligible after sitting out the 2019 season. If Clayton can stay healthy, he’ll pair with junior Kelton Dawson to bolster a position where Tech has struggled for several years. Antwan Owens could make that rotation even stronger or even start, but if Clayton and Dawson can hold their own—or if Justice Dingle takes a step forward—that might free Thacker to move Owens inside to shore up the defensive tackle position, where he’s more needed.
Everyone is back, a potential impact player is now eligible, and a handful of promising recruits are joining the mix. The Jackets need major improvement here to be successful, and they may just get it. Things are looking up.
Forecast: Major Progression
Tech is losing Brentavious Glanton, a fixture in the rotation for the past three years, but every other defensive tackle who played regularly in 2019 appears set to return next fall. Rising seniors Chris Martin and Djimon Brooks, a former walk-on, will be the leaders of the unit, but its success will hinge on how much the younger linemen can improve this offseason. Foremost among those younger linemen is T.K. Chimedza, who started nine games as a redshirt freshman and will join Brooks at nose tackle. Martin, Quon Griffin, and redshirt freshman Mike Lockhart will be in the three-technique DT rotation, but Owens is likely to start ahead of them if he ends up at DT instead of Base DE.
The interior line wasn’t exactly a strength for Tech this season, but next fall it will be anchored by three seniors with several capable younger players in the mix. How much those young players improve will dictate how this unit will fare.
Forecast: Minor Progression
This unit has a ton of potential, and everyone is set to return. The core trio will be rising sixth-year senior David Curry and juniors Charlie Thomas and Quez Jackson; they still need to work on executing run fits and zone coverage, but they were markedly better in both regards compared to a year ago. The question is how much the team will get out of rising senior Bruce Jordan-Swilling, who is rehabbing a foot injury, and converted quarterback Demetrius Knight, who showed major potential as a true freshman but is still learning the position. It’s possible that recruit Tyson Meiguez and possibly Notre Dame transfer Derrik Allen (recruited as a safety) end up joining the rotation right away.
They have some growing to do, but between talent, experience, and a second offseason of working directly with Thacker, the linebackers could very well be a strength of the defense in 2020.
Forecast: Moderate to Major Progression
Two-year starter Tre Swilling returns to anchor a unit that returns almost everyone, but a group that looked like a strength heading into 2019 faces more uncertainty going into Collins’ second season. Zamari Walton spent most of the season as the starter across from Swilling, but neither he nor reserve Myles Sims made much of a splash. Both were only redshirt freshmen, and some growth is to be expected this offseason, but it’s also possible that four-star recruit Miles Brooks snatches away the second starting job in fall camp.
Overall, expect some improvement from a group that will still be fairly young, but what would help them more than anything else is an improved pass rush. If the Edge DEs can make strides in the offseason, that will pay dividends for the corners.
Forecast: Moderate Progression
With Christian Campbell’s departure, the key returnee here is rising junior Kaleb Oliver, who has a high ceiling but still has room to grow in both run support and coverage. Oliver is likely to return as the starter at the nickel spot next year, but two players to watch here are Kenan Johnson and Wesley Walker. Both will be redshirt freshmen, but they have the balanced skillsets necessary to succeed at the position. With so much uncertainty, it’s hard to project significant improvement, but it’s very possible if the cards fall the right way. This will be a position to watch throughout the offseason.
Forecast: Minor Progression
Juanyeh Thomas and Tariq Carpenter both return to anchor the back end, so the immediate future is bright here. Neither generated as many havoc plays this season as one would have hoped, but as with the cornerbacks, that was largely a factor of Tech not generating much pressure up front. Versatile reserve Jaylon King will spell both starters regularly (and could be a factor at nickel back), and Derrik Allen will be in the mix if he remains at safety. Like the cornerbacks, the safeties would benefit tremendously from an improved pass rush—particularly Thomas, who would have more freedom to play aggressively and attempt to generate havoc.
Depth is a possible concern here, and a couple reserve corners could shift over in the offseason, but this is also likely to be Tech’s strongest pair of starters at any spot on the roster.
Forecast: Moderate Progression