Countdown to Kickoff: 51 Days
This is the latest position preview in our 100 Days to Kickoff series, but it's also my first article for FTRS. I'm Nishant Prasadh, one of the new football staff writers for the upcoming season. I'm a Marietta native and was at Tech for seven football seasons (which feels a little happier than saying seven years), starting with Paul Johnson's first season and lasting through the amazing 2014 campaign. Along the way I got a BS and MS in Aerospace Engineering, and now I'm out in Los Angeles, where I spend a little too much time bemoaning the lack of Waffle Houses in this state. I'm excited to start contributing and hope you, the reader, will walk away informed every time.
Secondary in Transition
Talent and continuity have been the major themes in the defensive backfield during Ted Roof's three-year tenure as Defensive Coordinator. Two defensive backs have been selected in the NFL Draft during his tenure (and a third has become a contributor in the pros after going undrafted), and the secondary has featured at least three returning starters in each of the past two seasons.
Looking ahead to next season, the talent should still be there thanks to some good hauls in recent recruiting classes, but the players will need to grow quickly. Only one regular starter returns from last year's secondary, so as several former highly-touted recruits step into the starting lineup, they will have very large shoes to fill.
The cornerbacks in Tech's defense have specific roles and are known as the "boundary" and "field" corners. The boundary corner is responsible for playing the short side of the field, closer to the sideline. While playing along the sideline means he has less ground to cover, it also means that 1) he has less reaction time because his assigned receiver is closer to the quarterback and 2) he often has to work without safety help over the top, resulting in lots of single coverage situations. The "field" corner plays on the opposite side and, true to the name, has to cover a greater swath of open field. If the defense is not lined up in a four or five-wide set, though, the field corner is likely to have safety help over the top and can play more aggressively.
Teams that use the boundary/field setup tend to put their best cover corner at the boundary position and a faster (and often smaller) corner on the field side. This is a good way to put both starting corners in roles where they can thrive, particularly since offenses tend to put their best receivers on the boundary side to maximize route options... but it can also be exploited, as Tech saw this firsthand last season against Notre Dame. Star receiver Will Fuller consistently lined up on the field side of the formation, avoiding boundary corner D.J. White and setting up a more favorable matchup against field corner Chris Milton, and Notre Dame spread the field with multiple receivers to limit Tech's ability to provide safety help on deep passes.
As for the safety positions, Tech uses the nearly universal pairing of a free and strong safety. The free safety is generally tasked with playing "center field" for the secondary, providing deep coverage in the middle of the field and helping out the corners when necessary. His ability to read the opposing quarterback and respond accordingly is paramount. The strong safety, meanwhile, tends to play closer to the line and plays a greater role in run support while also covering tight ends and slot receivers. Depending on the opponent, game situation, and formation, the safeties' assignments can vary greatly, and in past years Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof has given his safeties identical responsibilities.
Tech switches from a base 4-3 alignment to a 4-2-5 against spread formations, replacing one of the linebackers with an extra defensive back. Against teams with spread-based offenses, the 4-2-5 is effectively used as Tech's base defensive formation. That fifth DB—known as the nickel back, or simply the nickel—plays one of the most demanding positions on the field. He essentially needs to be a safety/linebacker hybrid who can cover a slot receiver on passing downs while also effectively acting as a third linebacker against the run. Size is a boon at this position but is not required; a small defensive back who tackles well can be an ideal fit at the nickel.
Fair warning: this section will not be fun.
At the top of the departure list is White, a three-year starter at cornerback who was drafted by Kansas City in the fifth round of April's NFL Draft. Over the past two seasons, White racked up 107 tackles, 16 pass breakups, and six interceptions. He was an ideal fit as the boundary corner: an athletic veteran who read quarterbacks and receivers well and rarely had lapses in coverage. His counterpart at field corner, Milton, is also gone; while Milton was more prone to lapses in coverage, he was still a very capable and athletic cover corner, recording 10 pass breakups in his two seasons as a starter.
Both starting safeties from 2015 are also gone. The major loss is free safety Jamal Golden, a savvy veteran who had eight career interceptions and was a turnover machine in 2014 (four INTs, three forced fumbles). Also gone is Demond Smith, who started at the nickel in 2014 before shifting to strong safety this past season.
All in all, Tech is losing four players who had a combined 130 career starts, and the players stepping in for them have... 13 combined starts.
The lone returning starter is junior nickel back Lawrence Austin. Despite his limited size (5-foot-9, 185 lbs), Austin had a strong sophomore season, recording 40 tackles and providing tight coverage in the slot. One of his best performances came against Florida State, where Austin prevented slot receiver Kermit Whitfield from breaking off any long receptions and tipped a pass in the end zone to set up a crucial fourth-quarter interception.
Of course, it was Austin's twin brother Lance that provided the heroics in that game, and Lance Austin is primed to enter the starting lineup for the first time in 2016. While he saw plenty of snaps at boundary corner last season, including most of the FSU game, Lance Austin lined up at field corner this spring and will likely remain there. Across from him, the likely starter at boundary corner is junior Step Durham, a former four-star recruit (on Rivals; three-star on 247 Composite) who has played spot duty at both corner positions.
Sophomore A.J. Gray is the leading candidate to take over at free safety after an outstanding freshman campaign in which he earned more and more playing time as the year went on. Gray has demonstrated promising coverage skills and, at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, has the size to be an effective contributor in run support when necessary. At strong safety, the leading candidate is redshirt junior Corey Griffin, who has recorded 36 tackles in substantial spot duty over the last two seasons.
The good news, then, is that there is at least one player at every position who has seen significant playing time already. The bad news is that in most cases, there is exactly one such player at every position. The only other scholarship defensive back with any experience is junior safety Shaun Kagawa, who had an interception in the April spring game but has played only sparingly over the past two seasons.
Redshirt sophomore Lamont Simmons, who sat out last season after transferring from USC, is battling for playing time at cornerback. Also in the mix at corner are redshirt freshmen Meiko Dotson and Dorian Walker. The two other safeties, redshirt sophomore Jalen Johnson and redshirt freshman Christian Campbell, only began playing safety this offseason (from wide receiver and quarterback, respectively). While there's plenty of talent to go around, none of these players have seen a single in-game snap at their positions yet.
Tech added two defensive backs in the 2016 recruiting class, both of whom were Georgia natives: two-star cornerback Ajani Kerr from Powder Springs and three-star safety Jarett Cole from Norcross. The most likely scenario is that both of them redshirt, but Cole has a chance to see the field at the nickel if he performs well in fall camp. Since he took over as DC, Roof has shown a great willingness to play any true freshman who proves himself on the practice field.
Projected Depth Chart
|Position||First String||Second String||Third String|
|BCB||Step Durham (Jr.)||Meiko Dotson (R-Fr.)||Lamont Simmons (R-So.)|
|FCB||Lance Austin (Jr.)||Lamont Simmons (R-So.)||Dorian Walker (R-Fr.)|
|FS||A.J. Gray (So.)||Jalen Johnson (R-So.)||Christian Campbell (R-Fr.)|
|SS||Corey Griffin (R-Jr.)||Lawrence Austin (Jr.)||Shaun Kagawa (Jr.)|
|NB||Lawrence Austin (Jr.)||Shaun Kagawa (Jr.)||Jarett Cole (Fr.)|
The first string is very unlikely to change between now and fall camp, so the most interesting battles will be for the backup roles. Simmons and Walker bring very different skillsets to the field corner position; the 6-foot-2 Simmons has the size and length to cover opponents' tallest receivers, while Walker is one of the fastest players on the team.
The big surprise this spring has been Campbell, who converted to safety from quarterback after suffering a broken throwing hand in March. While he is still adjusting to his new position, Campbell's athleticism and hard-hitting play in the spring game make him an interesting prospect at both safety positions, and he has a chance to rise up the depth chart if his progress continues into the fall.
When Tech lines up in a 4-3, Lawrence Austin is likely to see some snaps at safety, as the coaches will try to keep him on the field as much as possible. The nickel depth behind Lawrence Austin remains an open question, as he saw nearly all of the snaps at that position a year ago. Johnson or Campbell could see snaps there instead of Kagawa, or Tech could turn to a linebacker like David Curry or Emmanuel Bridges as more of a true safety/linebacker hybrid.
What Should We Expect?
As with any unit breaking in multiple new starters, growing pains are to be expected. That said, Roof has done a good job of getting the new starters onto the field over the past two seasons, so their learning curves should be reduced greatly. Plus each projected 2016 starter in the secondary is at least as athletic as the player he's replacing.
The real issue will be depth across the board. If any of the starters go down, Tech will be counting on a backup with little or no meaningful experience to date. In that vein, it's a very similar situation to what the B-backs and A-backs dealt with last spring... but luckily, so far the secondary has managed to stay healthy.