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100 Days to Kickoff: Position Previews - Safety and Nickel

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Talent is not in question here, but depth definitely is

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday’s position preview looked at the cornerbacks, and today’s will focus on the rest of the secondary: the two safety spots and the nickel back. It’s a group where clear starters seem to have emerged already, but depth remains in flux and there’s room for others to carve out roles in the rotation.

Primary Rotation

Juanyeh Thomas

Class: Sophomore

Size: 6-3, 216

It’s finally time for last year’s breakout star kick returner to enter the spotlight on defense. Thomas played sparingly behind graduate transfer Malik Rivera as a true freshman, but when he did see the field at safety, he did some damage. Just ask former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who watched him pick off a pass in the red zone and run it back 95 yards for a score to cap Tech’s 66-31 victory. Thomas is a playmaker, plain and simple—he’s good at moving toward the ball in run support, and if he has even a small chance to make a play on the ball in coverage, he’s taking it. He’s already one of the team’s emotional leaders, but how effective he is on the field will come down to how well he understands and executes his responsibilities in the new scheme. Given that he’s a young player and a first-year starter, it probably won’t be all smooth sailing, but there’s little doubt that he has at least a few highlight-reel plays up his sleeve.

Christian Campbell

Class: RS Senior

Size: 6-2, 210

The lone senior in the secondary, Campbell has bounced between positions over the years—he was recruited to play quarterback before switching to safety, then to outside linebacker, and now back to safety—and it looks like he’s finally secured a starting job as the safety opposite Thomas. He has good speed for the position and has flashed excellent tackling power in the past. With all of the other defensive back starters likely to be sophomores and freshmen, Campbell’s knowledge of the position and how players need to work together will be invaluable in bolstering a very young secondary.

Tariq Carpenter

Class: Junior

Size: 6-2, 223

Carpenter started every game at strong safety a year ago as a true sophomore, and while he seems to be third in line at safety entering the fall, he’ll undoubtedly see his share of playing time. He is Tech’s hardest hitter at the position and is all about wreaking havoc in the box, so at a minimum he can be a situational player who enters in third-and-short and goal-to-go situations. His coverage skills need work, but new coaching and a more amenable coverage scheme should help him improve.

Kaleb Oliver

Class: RS Sophomore

Size: 6-4, 212

Oliver has shifted to nickel back after backing up Carpenter last year, and he seems to be more comfortable at his new position. He’s one of the faster players in the secondary and has great length for a defensive back, and he’s a good enough tackler that he should thrive in his new safety/linebacker hybrid role—a role that, if the spring game is any indication, will ask him to attack the backfield often. Like many of the defensive backs, he needs to work on coverage fundamentals and understanding his responsibilities, but if the new regime can help him develop those abilities, he has the potential to be one of the better defenders in the ACC.

In the Mix

Depth looks like a potential concern for these three positions, particularly following Kelly Quinlan’s report from this morning that Gentry Bonds and Jarett Cole, two would-be reserves in the secondary, have left the team. Cole had previously entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal, but Bonds’ departure on top of that has strained a position group that already had few known commodities entering the 2019 campaign.

That Ajani Kerr emerged as the backup nickel back was somewhat of a surprise, since he’s generally been known as more of a cover guy, but a deeper dive suggests that it could be an interesting fit. Kerr led all cornerbacks in tackles last year with 39 despite mostly playing in a reserve role, so he can make an impact in run support. He’ll likely need to add a little weight if the coaching staff wants to keep him at the position, but he should have value there—and if Oliver struggles in coverage, Kerr could find his way into a situational role and see some extra snaps as a result.

Avery Showell is another guy who’s bounced around while trying to find a good fit, and he seems to have settled in at safety, where he played for the second-team defense in the spring game alongside Carpenter. Much like Kerr, it’s been a matter of finding a spot for a guy who’s good enough to get on the field somewhere. Expect Showell to see a bit less playing time than the other safeties, but he’ll be part of the mix. He’s also another guy who’s athletic enough to slide over and play the nickel if needed.

Given the overall lack of depth, there’s also room for a walk-on or two to win some playing time if the cards fall the right way.

New Arrivals

With relatively thin depth at all three positions, there’s definitely room for one of the freshmen to make an impact. If Wesley Walker ends up at nickel, he’s the most promising candidate to play as a true freshman—he has a well-rounded skillset in both coverage and run support that should serve him well out of the gate, and there’s likely room for a third guy to play behind Oliver and Kerr. Jeremiah Smith is slated for safety, and while he seems likely to redshirt, the lack of depth at both safety spots has left the door open for him to get on the field with an impressive showing in fall camp.

Projected Depth

Safety

1) Juanyeh Thomas

2) Christian Campbell

3) Tariq Carpenter

4) Avery Showell

LINE

Jeremiah Smith

Nickel

1) Kaleb Oliver

2) Ajani Kerr

3) Wesley Walker