October 1, 2016 Atlanta - Miami Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya (15) is tackled by Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defensive end KeShun Freeman (42) in the first half at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, October 1, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Breaking down the Jackets: Defensive line

The pressure is on Georgia Tech’s defensive ends. Coach Paul Johnson will be applying it personally.

Last season, end KeShun Freeman recorded half a sack in 13 starts. End Antonio Simmons had one sack, although he did have 12 quarterback hurries. Only backup Anree Saint-Amour redeemed the group with four sacks.

“We’ve got to do better in that area,” Johnson said recently at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte.

The challenge will arise again for Tech and its defensive line — creating a consistent pass rush without blitz help. It’s one reason why the Yellow Jackets ranked 126th in FBS in defensive third-down efficiency in 2016 at 49.2 percent.

“Generating some pass rush up front is always an issue,” Johnson said.

Tech will have to do it with some new pieces. While the Jackets return eight starters on defense, two of the three losses were from the line. Defensive tackle Patrick Gamble and defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong were steady performers who contributed 54 career starts.

DEFENSIVE END

First team after spring: KeShun Freeman, senior, Antonio Simmons, senior.

Notable reserves: Anree Saint-Amour, junior, Tyler Merriweather, junior.

On the way up: Cortez Alston, freshman.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

First team after spring: Kyle Cerge-Henderson, junior, Desmond Branch, junior.

Notable reserves: Brandon Adams, sophomore, Brentavious Glanton, sophomore, Chris Martin, redshirt freshman.

On the way: Kelton Dawson, freshman, Antwan Owens, freshman.

Analysis: While eight starters return on defense, two of the three holes will have to be filled on the defensive line, with the graduations of Gamble and Rook-Chungong. Moreover, the replacements, particularly at tackle, don’t have much experience.

As defensive Ted Roof put it in the spring, “We’re really, really unproven inside on defense. Really, really unproven.”

Cerge-Henderson has the most playing time, with 19 career games and 10 starts. After that, Adams played in some short-yardge situations, Branch was a backup whose playing time increased over the course of the season, Glanton played sparingly and Martin redshirted.

Taking a look at Georgia Tech’s defensive tackle candidates

It won’t be a surprise if opponents try to probe that part of the defense, starting with Tennessee running back John Kelly.

The challenge on the edges will be to produce more. Freeman is a high-effort player, and does the sorts of things that don’t always get noticed, but would greatly benefit the Jackets with more quarterback pressures. Simmons will be challenged to turn some of his 12 hurries into sacks.

What Georgia Tech is doing to improve its pass rush this spring

Tech’s pass rush — and overall defensive play – improved in the final four games of the season, when Roof cut down the playbook and stuck only to calls that players were comfortable executing. If the Jackets carry that sort of play into 2017 — Tech accumulated 10 of its 18 sacks in the final four games — the outlook is much brighter.

Factoid: Cerge-Henderson’s father Kevin Henderson played linebacker at Tech in the mid-1980s and was teammates with Roof, athletic director Todd Stansbury and Pat Swilling.

Statistic: Georgia Tech ranked 114th nationally in sacks per game (1.39) last season.

Prediction: The starters will remain the same as they were when the spring ended, Freeman and Simmons at the ends and Cerge-Henderson and Branch on the tackles. Simmons seems poised for a big season.

The series continues next Tuesday with a preview of the linebackers.

The series so far:

Part 1: Wide receiver

Part 2: Offensive line

Part 3: A-back

Part 4: B-back

Part 5: Quarterback

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