The difference that new coordinator Nate Woody has made with the Georgia Tech defense has not been always evident. The unit is prone to great, whiplashing fluctuations. One minute, fortress wall. The next, swinging saloon door.
The difference that a Swilling can make on defense, however, has been a proven fact for the better part of three decades.
It was Tre Swilling’s turn in Tech’s 38-28 victory over North Carolina here Saturday. The first career interception for the redshirt freshman was also the first of three Yellow Jacket interceptions on the day, each a difference-maker in its own way.
Tre’s cousin Ken Swilling remembers his first interception at Georgia Tech, too. That would have been 1989, before he grew into an All-American defensive back. “You always remember your first one. It’s always special,” said Ken, who was watching the festivities here back in Georgia.
So, what was your first, elder Ken? “Yeah, mine was a 95-yard pick-six against North Carolina State.”
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Playing up front, Tre’s father and a College Football Hall of Famer, Pat Swilling, didn’t trade in intercepting so much as he did in traumatizing quarterbacks. Still, he had his opinion on his boy’s leaping, one-handed grab. “It was a 50-50 ball, he should have come up with it,” he laughed, while standing outside North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium in the happy company of family enjoying a victory. “I just got through telling him that. He needed an interception.”
For the record, the son knows his place. Asked if he’d do much boasting about an eternally highlight-worthy pick to anyone in the family (that also includes another uncle who played at Tech, Darrell) Tre said: “I’m not sure I have much ammunition to talk to them yet. If I keep on working and get a couple more, maybe I can say something. My dad had seven sacks in a game. I’m not close to saying something to him yet.”
In the grand scheme, the young Swilling’s interception probably wasn’t the most significant, although the Georgia Tech offense did convert it into its second touchdown of the day and the Yellow Jackets’ first lead of the day.
Asked his favorite of the three, Tech coach Paul Johnson answered in less than a half-second, “The last one.” That belonged to the undisputed playmaker of this unit, defensive end Anree Saint-Amour, who drifted back in coverage and ultimately decided the game with two minutes left and the Yellow Jackets leading by seven.
“I think I had a good play on the ball,” Swilling said, “but at the time I think his interception was definitely better and was well needed. He made a play when the team needed it. Like a senior and a leader, he made the play.”
In the grand scheme, the interceptions were the needed counter-balance to the three fumbles committed by Tech’s yardage-grinding but oft-times error-prone offense. The interceptions – two of them in the fourth quarter, the other by safety Tariq Carpenter – dispelled all doubts as the Yellow Jackets were squandering an 18-point lead in the second half.
Yes, defense can still make a difference at Georgia Tech – just like it did when the Swillings of a generation ago played there. As for Woody’s defense, the one tectonic shift has been the number of takeaways it has been able to generate.
Sunday’s haul of three pushed the total to 20, twice the number the defense managed for entirety of 2017. Look for the Yellow Jackets to improve on their national standing in takeaways (13th coming into this game, whereas it was 124th last season).
“We know if you want to be a good defense and you want to win games you got to win the turnover battle,” Saint-Amour said. No one is accusing this defense of being good just yet, but it certainly came in handy Saturday.
On a strictly sentimental level, one Saturday spent picking passes as if this was just another fall day at a U-Pick’em orchard held great meaning to one of the first families of Yellow Jackets defense. Coming off what he called “probably the worst game of my life,” at Virginia Tech, Swilling rebounded with his breakthrough interception. And in the process, passed an initiation of sorts into the hall of play-making Swillings.
Between he and his brother, linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling, the two are keeping fresh the relationship between their family and Georgia Tech. And figure to do it for a few years to come.
On the day of Tre’s first college interception, just how special that relationship is – and figures to be in the future – was lost on none of them.
“It has been a great nostalgic kind of feeling,” said Ken, from back in Georgia.
And here, beneath the brightest-ever blue autumn sky – if not the brightest ever, at least in the top 10 – Pat Swilling soaked in the moment.
“To see them out there warms my heart,” he said. “Just to come back to Georgia Tech and watch a Swilling run out there again, it’s wonderful. Not only for me and my wife, but also to Darryl and Ken.
“It’s a legacy for us.”
Rebuilding a legacy of defense at Georgia Tech may take a good deal longer. But one step at a time.