Defensive backs have been a priority for Tech’s past three recruiting classes. That was particularly true for the 2017 class, in which Paul Johnson signed seven players to bolster the secondary, but Tech brought in several good corners and safeties in 2018 and 2019 as well. All those young players now have a clear path to playing time, but they also face the challenge of learning a new system, which will be the third in three years for the 2017 signees and will be much more demanding than the Ted Roof and Nate Woody schemes.
There will be a lot of demands on the corners this fall, and whether or not they will be ready is a lingering question. Still, for the young players who will form the rotation, talent has never been in question. If they adapt quickly to new coordinator Andrew Thacker’s press-heavy system, this position group could be one of the strengths of Geoff Collins’ first team in Atlanta.
NOTE: nickel backs will be included in tomorrow’s preview of the safeties.
This is one of several positions on the roster where there are few truly proven commodities. Still, a handful of players appear to be in the early lead for playing time this fall.
Class: RS Sophomore
Size: 6-0, 200
The most seasoned cornerback on the roster, Swilling started 11 games a year ago and has all but locked down a starting job for his sophomore campaign. At times last year, he looked like an impact player in the making: he led the team with six pass breakups, made a one-handed snag on a jump ball against UNC for his first career interception, and proved to be an effective pass rusher on boundary corner blitz plays. At other times, he looked like a freshman, turning his hips a bit too slowly and occasionally losing track of players in zone coverage. The talent was there, but the polish was lacking—and that seemed to be true for almost everyone at the position.
To that end, Swilling’s physical playing style would seem to make him a natural fit in the new system, which will ask him to play more man-to-man and press coverage and will still call on him to blitz when he’s lined up on the boundary. How well he plays this fall will be the most visible demonstration of the improvement (or lack thereof) in coaching for his position group.
Class: RS Junior
Size: 6-0, 190
It’s not yet clear if Kerr will line up at cornerback or nickel back, but he’s been a corner for his whole career and it would not be a surprise if he stuck at the position. The rising redshirt junior has had flashes of brilliance—his most notable moment was a fourth-down, game-saving pass breakup in one-on-one coverage against Virginia Tech’s Cam Phillips in 2017. He ended up sliding a bit in the rotation in 2018, but he did play in every game, making three starts and leading all corners on the team with 39 tackles. Like Swilling, he’s a physical player who should benefit from the switch to the new scheme, but he’ll face a lot of competition from younger players if he sticks at corner.
Size: 5-11, 180
Askew has been a major contributor on special teams since he arrived, and he began 2018 as the second starting corner across from Swilling before gradually falling behind in the rotation. Some of that was injury-related, though; as the AJC’s Ken Sugiura reported during spring practice, Askew suffered a rotator cuff injury early in the season that undoubtedly hindered his effectiveness as the season went on. He had surgery to repair the issue after the season and missed spring practice, and that may have opened the door for a couple younger players to prove themselves. But if Askew is back to full strength, he’s a well-rounded corner with a penchant for reading opposing quarterbacks who should be a major contributor this fall.
Class: RS Freshman
Size: 6-3, 175
Walton took over for a struggling Swilling early in the road win at Virginia Tech and acquitted himself well in a crucial ACC contest. He only played in four games to preserve his redshirt, but the VT action was a sign of the previous staff’s faith in him, and there’s every reason to believe the new staff will get him on the field. Walton is a skilled athlete who has unusual height and length for the position, and those traits will be even more beneficial in a coverage scheme that asks its corners to jam receivers and run with them. He played with the second-team defense in the spring game, but there’s little doubt he’ll be in the rotation this fall.
Class: RS Freshman
Size: 6-1, 186
While Walton appeared to be ahead of him in the rotation a year ago, it was King who got the nod as the other first-team cornerback in the spring game (alongside Swilling). He was Tech’s highest-rated recruit in the 2018 class and is a versatile player who can line up anywhere in the secondary. King has the speed to run with most receivers in the ACC and the size to jam them at the line. Even if Walton or Askew ends up pulling ahead for the second starting job, King is a virtual lock to be in the cornerback rotation this fall.
In the Mix
A couple returning players have a shot to play but have some ground to make up.
Redshirt junior Jair Hawkins-Anderson is an interesting candidate; he played wide receiver for the past three years and was somewhat buried on the depth chart, so he switched to cornerback this offseason and has made the transition fairly smoothly. He saw a good amount of action in the spring game with the second-team defense and has a chance to work his way into the rotation, though his odds of seeing major playing time remain slim.
Devin Smith also saw action in the spring game and seems to have the best shot to play out of any of the walk-ons at cornerback. The sheer number of players at the position lessens his chances, though.
Tech brought in several defensive back signees in the 2019 class, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if at least one of them found his way into the cornerback rotation.
Jordan Huff has the best shot simply by virtue of being an early enrollee. He’s a fast player with great skills in man coverage, and that should suit him well this fall and in the years ahead. Much of the same is true for Kenan Johnson, a long corner who was excellent in press coverage in high school and could have an early leg up if those skills translate cleanly to the practice field.
One of the more intriguing freshmen to watch is Wesley Walker, a product of the same high school as King and the top-rated defensive back signee in the 2019 class (per the 247Sports composite rankings). Walker is a hard-hitting defensive back who has good instincts in coverage, and the question will be whether he ends up at corner or at nickel back, which might be a more ideal fit for his skillset.
The fourth new arrival at corner is Myles Sims, a former four-star recruit and Atlanta native who transferred in from Michigan. It seems unlikely that he’ll be cleared to play this season, but whether he ends up being eligible to play this fall or next, Sims will bring a tantalizing combination of length (listed height of 6-3) and athleticism to the rotation.
1) Tre Swilling
2) Jaylon King
3) Jaytlin Askew
4) Zamari Walton
5) Ajani Kerr (if at CB rather than NB)
6) Myles Sims (if eligible) or Jordan Huff
Wesley Walker (if at CB rather than NB)