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Spring Game Review: Defense Overview

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A look back at what we learned in the spring finale

NCAA Football: Duke at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

With the conclusion of the spring game on April 26, the long wait has begun. So let’s take a step back and look at what came out of one of the more compelling spring camps in recent memory for Tech.

Amid all the (rightful) interest in the offensive transition, it was easy to forget that Tech was also changing systems on the other side of the ball. Again. Collins and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker are installing the third scheme in three years for Tech’s defense; it’s a scheme that should take better advantage of the current personnel than the previous two did, but it’s still a new system that will lead to some growing pains—if not on the same level as what the offense is going through.

The spring game shed some light on where things stand, and the most interesting place to begin is with what’s new.

Scheme Observations

The game began, of course, with a remarkable formation that Tech fans have not seen in over a decade:

One would be tempted to think the previous sentence refers to the “changing of the guard” moment on offense and the subsequent pass to a tight end on the first play. But no, that was all merely a distraction from an even more shocking and exciting development.

Look at the corners.

Both the boundary and field corners are playing up on the line. Repeat: THE CORNERS ARE PLAYING UP ON THE LINE. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

OKAY TECHNICALLY THE ENTIRE SPRING GAME WAS A DRILL BUT THAT HARDLY MATTERS BECAUSE THE CORNERS ARE UP ON THE LINE.

Seeing the corners playing up was exciting but not unexpected. In the days and weeks after he was hired, Collins talked about installing a press man coverage scheme for the defensive backs, and it was clear he was committed to that philosophy.

After six years of Ted Roof and Nate Woody teaching their corners to leave massive cushions, this is a massive shift—and one that plays well to the personnel in the secondary. Collins made long, rangy corners a clear priority in his first recruiting class, and he’ll benefit from Johnson’s staff taking a similar approach in his final seasons, as three of the projected top four corners (Tre Swilling, Zamari Walton, and Jaylon King) check in at 6-foot-1 or taller. Those are the sorts of players who tend to thrive when jamming receivers at the line.

It’s an aggressive approach, and with that comes increased risk. This was illustrated in the 26-yard pass from Ryan Lantz to Malachi Carter, in which true freshman Jordan Huff made contact at the line and kept pace with Carter on a go route but could not prevent a long completion.

The new approach in no way guarantees success. But it shows something that has not been present to nearly the same degree in recent Tech defenses: faith in the cornerbacks to challenge receivers and make plays.

It won’t be purely a man coverage scheme, of course. Tech will mix in some zone coverage, particularly when blitzing, and that was present in roughly equal measure in the spring game. One of the better defensive plays came on a play when Tech was in zone, with defensive end Jordan Domineck flushing quarterback Liam Byrne to his left and setting up an interception by cornerback Ajani Kerr:

An early (and admittely wild) guess is that that the scheme will lean heavily on man coverage in the back seven, with the fraction of zone plays being driven by game situations and the opponent’s offensive capabilities. Regardless, it’s a welcome shift after years of the Roof and Woody defenses leaning extremely heavily on zone coverages.

Playcalling

If the defensive effort seemed underwhelming, it stemmed largely from two things: the offenses were starting at their own 40 and thus working with short fields, and the defenses were working with very limited playbooks by design for this game.

But a few positives from the past year were carried forward. One of Tech’s most consistently successful tactics in 2018 was sending Tre Swilling on a boundary corner blitz; late on Gold’s opening drive, Thacker dialed up that playcall, and an unblocked Swilling reached the quarterback quickly enough to be credited with a sack.

In an actual game, it’s far more likely that the right tackle reacts more quickly or the running back is there to pick up Swilling, but it’s heartening to see his burst off the edge. Equally heartening is what happens behind him: defensive end Kelton Dawson jams tight end Josh Tukes at the line before beginning his rush, and as soon as Dawson breaks off to begin his rush, safety Christian Campbell is there to pick up Tukes in coverage (though he almost drifts too far forward).

Beyond the one call—which he repeated later in the game with both Ajani Kerr and Jaylon King, with Kerr’s blitz almost leading to a pick—Thacker did dial up a reasonable variety of playcalls, sending the linebackers often enough and throwing the nickel backs out there on occasion. One such play came early on, when nickel back Kaleb Oliver was the fourth rusher as edge man Jaquan Henderson, lined up on the opposite side, dropped back into coverage. Oliver runs headlong into a good block on the edge, which buys Lucas Johnson time to throw, but the play is otherwise executed properly.

All in all, the defensive playbook wasn’t anything too complicated—but again, that was by design to increase scoring in the spring game. And what we did see suggested that the actual playcalling this fall will be varied and aggressive.

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In the coming days, we’ll have another article reviewing the individual defensive units and player performances, and Matt will have a film breakdown of the offense’s spring game performance.