For the third straight year, the secondary was a priority for the coaching staff in recruiting. Tech added four more defensive backs in the 2019 class, bringing the total to 16 corners and safeties signed over the past three classes. Several of those players in the 2017 and 2018 classes moved to other positions at some point, but regardless, Tech now has a stockpile of young players at every position in the secondary—and on top of that, several players who played outside linebacker in Nate Woody’s defense seem likely to shift to either safety or nickel back under Andrew Thacker and Nathan Burton.
Given the situation, the four incoming defensive back signees will face a tough road to earn playing time this fall. But on the other hand, at least two starting spots will be up for grabs with the departures of seniors Lamont Simmons and Malik Rivera. With few truly proven players in the mix at this point, the rookies will have a chance to earn spots in the rotation.
Size: 6-2, 190
Hometown: Grayson, GA (Loganville HS)
Smith was the first commit in the 2019 class, announcing his commitment to Tech in February 2018 and never wavering. He projects as a safety, where the defense could use some extra depth at both positions.
The best available film for Smith is from his junior year, since he committed early and never put together a senior year film reel.
Smith’s best skill by far is his tackling ability, and if the defensive staff uses the standard pairing of a free and strong safety, he would make an interesting strong safety prospect. He’s effective at both tackling at the waist and making rugby-style tackles; even as a high school junior, he shows a tendency to go low when tackling in the open field, which is good to see in a prospect.
In coverage, Smith isn’t the fastest player around, but his length helps to make up for it. He tracks the ball well in the air, getting himself in position to make a play when the ball arrives. One interesting note is that in some instances, he’s a bit conservative when playing the ball; rather than going for the breakup or the pick, he focuses on disrupting the receiver to jar the ball loose. That said, this could be the result of a small sample, and he does make a leaping interception at one point in the film.
Size: 6-1, 190
Hometown: Nashville, TN (Ensworth School)
Walker is Tech’s second signee from Ensworth in as many years, following in the footsteps of 2018 cornerback Jaylon King. He was the highest-rated defensive back in Tech’s signing class based on the 247Sports Composite rankings and was second only to running back Jamious Griffin across the entire class.
Walker is a versatile prospect who would be useful anywhere in the secondary, but he would be an intriguing candidate at nickel back in particular.
Much like Smith, he’s very good at going low to make tackles. Walker always seems to hit the ballcarrier in a spot that allows him to drive the runner backward, and that ability should only improve as he enters the strength and conditioning program on campus. And when he’s not in position to make a clean hit, he can make a rugby-style tackle to pull the runner down.
On top of his run support skills, Walker has great instincts in both man and zone coverage. When he’s playing man-to-man, there are a couple instances where he seems to know exactly when a receiver is about to break on his route and times his own movements accordingly, enabling him to be there right when the ball arrives to either break it up or try to jar it loose. And in zone, he’s good at maneuvering to a spot where he can make a play—this helps him snag one of his interceptions in his film.
Size: 6-2, 185
Hometown: Madison, GA (Morgan County HS)
Huff played both slot receiver and cornerback for Morgan County, and he’s slated for the latter at Tech. He’ll add another talented player to the mix in a position group that has become a full-on youth movement.
(Defensive highlights start at the 3:12 mark, though based on those first few minutes, it’d be fun to give Huff a look on offense. He’s a shifty receiver whose ability to change direction on a dime is reminiscent of TaQuon Marshall.)
Like Walker, Huff could end up in a number of different places in the secondary, though cornerback seems like the best bet. New coach Geoff Collins has stated that he plans to run a press man coverage scheme, and Huff looks like a lockdown corner in the making—he’s consistently able to run with his man stride for stride down the field. The one thing that isn’t shown is his ability to press on the line, but that can be taught, and having a dedicated cornerbacks coach (Jeff Popovich) should help in that regard.
Huff is just as good in zone coverage. He shows a keen ability to follow the quarterback’s eyes, and there are a couple plays where he appears to bait the opposing QB into a throw in order to break up the pass. On top of all that, Huff might be the best athlete in the class on the defensive side of the ball; his agility isn’t quite as useful at cornerback as it is on offense, but it’s still very valuable for running with opposing receivers, and he’s got good straight-line speed.
Size: 6-1, 175
Hometown: Lake Minneola, FL (Lake Minneola HS)
Johnson was the first player to commit after Collins was hired, doing so just a few days after the hire was announced. He had previously been committed to UNC, so he was one of two players that Collins and his staff were able to pull away from other ACC schools this offseason (the other being wide receiver Marquez Ezzard, who is transferring in from Miami).
Johnson gives the Jackets a long, rangy corner who should thrive when matched up against bigger receivers. He plays tight man coverage, staying with his man the whole way even in bump-and-run coverage, and even when the receiver has half a step on him, he’s able to stretch out to break up on-target passes. A couple plays from the 3:00 mark onward show what he can do in full press coverage, harassing the receiver at the line and sticking to him for the remainder of the play. Both of these snippets bode well for how he will fare in Tech’s press man scheme on the outside.
While Johnson is probably capable of playing multiple positions in the secondary, he definitely projects as a corner for Tech. It’s not yet clear if Thacker and Burton will use boundary and field corners, but Johnson has the coverage skills to be a solid boundary corner in the ACC. Outside of coverage, he isn’t quite as consistent of a tackler as Walker or Huff, but he has good instincts in run support and hits harder than his listed weight would suggest.
There was a clear thread among the 2019 defensive back signees: length. All of them are 6-foot-1 or taller and give Tech a group of players who can match up with taller receivers while also being athletic enough to cover smaller, quicker receivers.
This is a position group that Tech has recruited heavily in recent years, and most of those players are still on the roster, so it’ll be a tough road ahead for the incoming freshmen to find much playing time. But with two starting spots open (three if the nickel back is included), the opportunity is there. They’re a talented group, and it would not be a surprise if at least two or three of them played at least a few games within the four-game redshirt limit, much like Zamari Walton, Jaylon King, and others a year ago.