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Football: Spring Practice Position Battles - Defense

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Here's a full rundown of the battles for playing time that are about to heat up in spring practice.

Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

With Georgia Tech's spring practice due to begin on Monday, let's take a look at who's competing for playing time on defense.

Defensive Tackle

Departures: Adam Gotsis, Jabari Hunt-Days

The Yellow Jackets will have to replace one starter spot at DT in 2016 after the departure of long-time starter Adam Gotsis. They return their other starter in Pat Gamble, as well as Kyle Cerge-Henderson, who finished the 2015 season as the fill-in starter following Gotsis' injury.

Although Cerge-Henderson finished 2015 as a starter on defense, there's no guarantee that he'll retain that spot for 2016. This will be a lesser-known position battle during spring practice, as KCH looks to battle with seasoned veteran Francis Kallon, fellow classmates (and rising redshirt freshmen) Brentavious Glanton, Scott Morgan, and potentially Trent Sellers as well as incoming true freshmen Brandon Adams and Chris Martin (although they won't be around for this spring).

As the reigning starter, KCH enters the battle this spring as the favorite to ultimately win the starting job, but Kallon and Glanton are both guys who could be a major threat and steal the job by the end of camp. Kallon in particular has had a lot of issues throughout his career with things like execution, but is a veteran guy with all the physical tools that the coaches could ask for at that position. Keep an eye on this one.

Defensive End

Departures: Tyler Stargel

The defensive end spot is one that could end up seeing some shuffling in the two-deep, even though there's been no real attrition that would warrant it.

Rod Rook-Chungong returns as the presumed starter at strong-side defensive end, but will be challenged by incoming transfer Desmond Branch in spring camp. After playing in 2014 and then redshirting in 2015, Tyler Merriweather will also be a player to watch for at this spot, although it's unlikely that he would emerge as the starter. If Trent Sellers doesn't move to defensive tackle, he would also be in the mix here, although it's unlikely that he would threaten Rook-Chungong's starting spot.

The weak-side defensive end spot is where things get tricky. KeShun Freeman is returning for his junior season as a two-year starter at WDE. However, after something of a sophomore slump in 2015, the former Freshman All-American may not retain his status as a starter for 2016. A lot of that is due to the competition he's seeing, primarily from rising sophomore Anree Saint-Amour. This is a position where there shouldn't be much of a battle going on, but where a depth chart shift is entirely possible by the end of spring practice. Also in the mix here is Antonio Simmons, although it's unlikely that he would end up winning the starting spot over Freeman.

Linebacker

Departures: Tyler Marcordes, Beau Hankins, Domonique Noble

As Georgia Tech continues to employ more 4-2-5 fronts on defense to counter spread offenses, competition for playing time at linebacker increases while number of spots available decreases.

P.J. Davis had a bit of regression in 2015 after nearly leading the conference in tackles in 2014, but he remains firmly entrenched in one of the starter spots headed towards his senior year. The other spot is probably Brant Mitchell's to lose at this point, after his true freshman season showed him to be one of the team's best players in the front 7. He'll be challenged primarily by Chase Alford for playing time, who is also a likely candidate for the third linebacker spot when the defense lines up in a 4-3 set.

Other guys who could potentially end up pushing for (and winning) the second starter spot are Terrell Lewis and Vic Alexander, although both would be considered long shots at this point. (Alexander in particular has some need for further development before attaining that role, most likely.) Other guys who will be in the mix during the spring are Tre Jackson and Tyler Cooksey, as well as early-enrolled true freshman Emmanuel Bridges.

Cornerback

Departures: D.J. White, Chris Milton

The Yellow Jackets are going to have to replace their entire starting secondary in 2016, but the cupboard is far from bare at cornerback. The top cornerback replacing D.J. White and Chris Milton should be USC transfer Lamont Simmons, who sat out last year due to transfer rules but was said to be lighting up the practice field. He should be flanked by rising junior Step Durham, who's spent the last two years as the team's #3 cornerback and should be fully prepared to handle his starting role.

The only credible threat to either one's starting spot is Lance Austin, although Austin has managed to fly comfortably under the radar on defense during his first two years in school, and with some reason for that. (Special teams are a different story.) Others in the mix will be redshirt freshmen Meiko Dotson and Dorian Walker, and don't be shocked if there's someone else involved here that's currently listed at a different position. (That's not to say that I have reason to believe anyone will be, outside of the relative lack of depth and numbers at CB right now.)

Safety

Departures: Jamal Golden, Demond Smith

As with the cornerback spots, both starting safety spots will need to be replaced in 2016 after the departure of multi-year starters Jamal Golden and Demond Smith. It seems like A.J. Gray is a safe bet to pencil in to one of the starting spot, but there's a pretty major lack of clarity on who is set to fill the second spot.

There are several candidates who will be competing for starting safety spots this spring. Aside from Gray, primary competitors would include Corey Griffin, John Marvin, Shaun Kagawa, and potentially Lawrence Austin. Griffin is likely the frontrunner at the beginning of the spring session given his history of being the primary backup, but Marvin and Kagawa are both very talented and have plenty of potential to claim that second spot. In addition, Austin may see plenty of time at safety (this spring and beyond) when not acting as the team's primary nickel corner -- duties he could also pass along to David Curry or Jarrett Cole (after he enrolls later this summer).

Other guys who will be involved here include Jalen Johnson (who should be moving back to defense after temporarily transitioning to wide receiver last season) and Christian Campbell (who we just found out would be transitioning from his prior role at quarterback).

The position battle at safety figures to be one of the biggest storylines to watch for Georgia Tech throughout spring camp, as the coaches will aim to score a little more clarity on who deserves playing time there.

Overall

As mentioned, safety and defensive tackle look to be the two biggest position battles this spring, although there's potential for some shuffling at both linebacker and WDE as well. For now, though, here's a good summary of what was discussed here, and where the team stands to start spring practice:

Position Projected Starter Potential Threat In the Mix
SDE Rod Rook-Chungong Desmond Branch
Tyler Merriweather
Trent Sellers (?)
DT Pat Gamble
Kyle Cerge-Henderson
Francis Kallon
Brentavious Glanton
Scott Morgan
Trent Sellers (?)
WDE KeShun Freeman Anree Saint-Amour Antonio Simmons
Kenderius Whitehead
LB P.J. Davis
Brant Mitchell
Chase Alford
Terrell Lewis
Vic Alexander
Tre Jackson
Tyler Cooksey
Emmanuel Bridges
CB Lamont Simmons
Step Durham
Lance Austin Meiko Dotson
Dorian Walker
S A.J. Gray
Corey Griffin
John Marvin
Shaun Kagawa
Lawrence Austin (NB)
Jalen Johnson
David Curry (NB)
Christian Campbell