As Anree Saint-Amour recalls, it was the second week of Georgia Tech’s spring practice when he began to understand that the Yellow Jackets’ new defensive scheme would be a departure from the old one.
In the first week, the Tech defensive end explained, players aren’t in pads yet and are still getting into the rhythm of practice.
“But I feel like the second week, you’re getting into full pads, you’re starting to hit and everything, going full speed,” Saint-Amour told the AJC earlier this summer. “And that’s when you start realizing how different the slants are, and, you know what I’m talking about, the attack of the defense and everything like that.”
Saint-Amour’s reaction to the change followed what other Tech defensive players expressed in the spring as they took their first steps learning new defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme.
“I feel like I had a happy response,” Saint-Amour said. “It lets you run more. It lets you be a little more free. Once you start to learn the defense more, it’s easier to play fast and try to play within the parameters of the defense, and when you learn what you’re supposed to do, you can make more plays off just knowing.”
With summer workouts complete, the Jackets will begin preseason training Aug. 3. It is the next phase in a revamping of the defense, a renovation that Tech supporters hope will make an even bigger impact than the one that transformed the team’s locker room.
In preseason practice, Saint-Amour said, “we’re going to learn more plays, learn more stunts, learn more blitzes and all that stuff. I feel like, by the time the season starts, when everything gets going, we’re going to be a great defense.”
The scheme aside, Saint-Amour has responded to Woody and defensive line coach Jerome Riase, who have replaced, respectively, Ted Roof and Mike Pelton.
He called Woody positive and intense.
“He rarely has anything negative to say,” Saint-Amour said. “He’s always lifting us up and trying to get us to push more. I remember when we had a practice just with helmets, and he’s expecting us to go – not contact, obviously – full speed to the point so we’re actually getting some work in. And that’s something different.”
Riase is similarly positive, Saint-Amour said, with a teaching approach.
“He takes the time with us so we can learn what we’re doing,” Saint-Amour said. “You don’t have to be afraid to ask questions or anything else like that. He’s going to work with you. He doesn’t really care if you mess up. He’s really pinpointed on the fact that you’re going full speed and you’re giving maximum effort.”
Saint-Amour will remain at defensive end in Woody’s 3-4. He had also played there in Roof’s 4-3 defense. But where he often lined up outside the offensive tackle’s shoulder in the 4-3 and had more space to operate, ends in Woody’s 3-4 can line up over the tackle or in the “B” gap – between the tackle and guard.
At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Saint-Amour has a relatively lean body and doesn’t have the physique of the prototype 3-4 end. However, Woody, valuing speed, has succeeded with lighter players.
“I feel like I’m probably going to be taking on a little bit more double teams and a little bit more ‘B’ gaps and everything, whereas in the other defense, I was outside of the edges,” he said. “I feel like there’s more slants and there’s more shooting gaps than the last defense.”
Defensive end Desmond Branch, who was an undersized defensive tackle in the 4-3, could flourish at end, in Saint-Amour’s view.
“He has a great skillset for that,” Saint-Amour said. “He’s big, he’s stocky, he’s fast, he’s quick. That’d be great for that type of end, the defense that we have now.”
The challenge and mission that Tech’s defense faces is to create more negative plays – turnovers and tackles for loss. Last season, the Jackets ranked 119th nationally in tackles for loss at 4.27 per game after finishing 120th in 2016. Tech tied for 125th with 10 takeaways and tied for 67th in 2016 with 19.
Echoing what teammates have said, Saint-Amour finds the scheme easier to play.
“It definitely helps you play faster, because you’re not always thinking about what I might do wrong,” he said. “It’s more, like, OK, I know what I’m supposed to do. It’s simple. Just go here, go there and you just play to the best of your ability. That’s what definitely helps a lot.”
In fewer than six weeks, Tech can take Woody’s scheme and teaching to the field with the season opener against Alcorn State on Sept. 1 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“The whole D-line this spring, we were really pushing it,” Saint-Amour said. “It felt like we were doing a great job getting pressure on the quarterback. Not only pressure on the quarterback, but it was penetration behind the line of scrimmage. I’m just really eager to see us as a D-line as a whole just play, get out there and ball this season.”
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