Georgia Tech defensive back Lance Austin (center) intercepts Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason during the fourth quarter, setting up the game-winning drive for a 28-27 victory for Georgia Tech on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Athens. Georgia Tech defenders Lawrence Austin (left) and Brandon Adams celebrate on the play. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Breaking down the Jackets: Secondary

With five returning starters, decent depth and promising freshmen on the way, the Georgia Tech secondary is probably the strongest position group on the roster.

“I think we’ve got some guys that can step up,” coach Paul Johnson said at the ACC Kickoff.

Cornerbacks Lance Austin and Step Durham, nickel back Lawrence Austin and safeties A.J. Gray and Corey Griffin are veteran, tested and have been productive. Their play was instrumental in the Yellow Jackets’ strong finish in 2016.

If Tech is to repeat or improve upon the successes of last season, chances are that this group will have something to do with it.

Cornerbacks

First team after spring: Lance Austin, senior, Step Durham, senior.

Notable reserves: Lamont Simmons, junior, Ajani Kerr, redshirt freshman.

On the way up: Jaytlin Askew, freshman, Gentry Bonds, freshman, Tre Swilling, freshman, Dameon Williams, freshman.

Nickel back

First team after spring: Lawrence Austin, senior

Notable reserves: Jalen Johnson, junior.

On the way up: Avery Showell, freshman.

Safeties

First team after spring: A.J. Gray, junior, Corey Griffin, senior.

Notable reserves: Christian Campbell, sophomore, Shaun Kagawa, senior

On the way up: Tariq Carpenter, freshman, Jarett Cole, redshirt freshman, Kaleb Oliver, freshman.

Analysis: Undersized but relentless, Lance and Lawrence Austin are easily overlooked but have shown the knack for coming through at the right moment, play that merited the two of them winning the final three ACC defensive back of the week awards of last season.

Corey Griffin is a solid run defender and smart player. A.J. Gray was not noticed much last season, his first as a starter, but still made 72 tackles, third most on the team.

“A.J. is a hard worker, another guy that does everything the right way, never in trouble, never an issue, never a problem,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I’d like to see him be a little more productive this year, and maybe this year will be his year to do it. Another year in the system, so he doesn’t have to think. He can just relax and play.”

Step Durham fought through injuries last season, his first as a starter, and proved himself a capable cover man. No. 3 cornerback Lamont Simmons could probably start for other ACC teams. Backup safety Shaun Kagawa has been a valuable special teamer and backed up at safety last year.

The transfer of cornerback Dorian Walker to Kennesaw State was a loss, as he seemed on a track to potentially start down the road.

Why Tech’s defense may have taken a big step forward

The influx of freshmen – Jaytlin Askew, Gentry Bonds, Tariq Carpenter, Kaleb Oliver, Avery Showell, Tre Swilling and Dameon Williams – is a significant gain. They’ll increase the level of competition, which will benefit the group as a whole. Johnson was particularly excited about “hybrid” athletes Carpenter, Oliver and Showell, who could end up at other positions.

Tech freshman Kaleb Oliver’s family beats 1 in 56,000 odds

In pass defense, the group, as is the case with any secondary, will have to rely on the front to provide pressure. Tech’s frequent challenge has been not being able to create havoc with the front four, allowing quarterbacks and receivers time to connect, or leaving the secondary vulnerable by blitzing with linebackers or defensive backs.

With a capable secondary in place, a consistent pass rush to match could do wonders for Tech’s defense.

Statistic: The returning five starters have a combined 73 starts, led by Lawrence Austin’s 20 starts.

Factoid: A.J. Gray’s older sister Allisha led South Carolina win the women’s basketball national championship in April and was the No. 4 pick in the WNBA draft.

Prediction: The starting five will remain the same, but freshmen Kaleb Oliver and Gentry Bonds will make an impact.

The series concludes Thursday with a preview of special teams.

The series so far:

Part 1: Wide receiver

Part 2: Offensive line

Part 3: A-back

Part 4: B-back

Part 5: Quarterback

Part 6: Defensive line

Part 7: Linebacker

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