Georgia Tech linebackers David Curry (6) and Jordan Domineck (42) stop North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary (13) after a short gain during the first half Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.
Photo: John Bazemore/AP
Photo: John Bazemore/AP

Georgia Tech linebackers looking for playmakers

This is the third installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia Tech’s spring football practice, which begins March 3. Today: Linebackers | Yesterday: Defensive line | Tomorrow: Defensive backs

LINEBACKERS
Who’s gone: Bruce Jordan-Swilling (position change)
Who’s back: David Curry, Cornelius Evans, Quez Jackson, Demetrius Knight, Charlie Thomas
Who’s new: Jerry Howard (position change)
Projected starters: Curry, Thomas

Georgia Tech’s linebackers were able to get to the ball last season. The numbers indicate it.

Linebackers David Curry, Charlie Thomas and Quez Jackson were first, second and fifth, respectively, in tackles on the team. The matter was at what spot on the field they were bringing down ballcarriers. Thomas led the team with 9.5 tackles for loss, followed by Curry at six and Jackson with five. They were all career-high totals, but also not in the top 10 among ACC linebackers.

A next step for Tech’s linebackers as they go into spring practice, which begins March 3, is to develop as playmakers. It goes for the defense as a whole, as the Jackets’ tied for 103rd in FBS in tackles for loss per game (5.1) and tied for 69th in passes defended per game (4.17).

But the linebackers’ potential to make plays also depends on the players in front of them. It’s incumbent upon the linebackers to shed blocks on their own, but the more that Tech’s line can occupy blocks, the more opportunity the linebackers have to run free and get into offensive backfields.

A sequence of plays at the start of Tech’s win over N.C. State demonstrated the duality of the linebackers needing to make plays on their own, but also benefiting from help from the line. Over the Jackets’ first 17 defensive snaps, covering two N.C. State possessions, Curry, Jackson and Thomas weren’t highly impactful. Plays went away from them, they were blocked on blitzes on pass plays or they were meeting ballcarriers running with momentum well past the line of scrimmage. There were tackles made in pass coverage, notably a fine open-field tackle made by Thomas to keep wide receiver Emeka Emezie short of the first-down marker on a third-and-5, setting up a pivotal fourth-down stop on the next play.

The Jackets gained control of the game early with big plays from the offense and then held on by their fingertips for a 28-26 defeat of N.C. State Nov. 21, 2019, at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Courtesy of ACC)

But on plays No. 18 and 19, starting N.C. State’s third drive from its 15-yard line, Curry and Jackson made two impact plays. On first-and-10, Curry was able to evade pulling left tackle Emanuel McGirt and brought down running back Zonovan Knight for no gain on first-and-10. On the next play, defensive tackle Ja’Quon Griffin drove back left guard Joe Sculthorpe on a run play to the left, delaying running back Ricky Person and also providing Jackson the time and space to penetrate the backfield and tackle Person for a 5-yard loss. N.C. State punted two plays later, and Tech took advantage of excellent field position on the next drive to score and take a 14-0 lead.

The back-to-back plays illustrated what the linebackers can do when they can defeat blocks and also take advantage of superior plays made in front of them. Just as a running back depends on his offensive line, so linebackers often need defensive linemen to create lanes for them to attack upfield.

In the spring, Thacker will have Curry, Jackson and Thomas all back. They started a combined 23 games last season. Curry, granted a sixth season of eligibility last July, will go into his third season as a starter.

Curry, as evidenced by his being voted captain for the 2019 team and single-digit jersey, is a prominent team leader whose effort and commitment to the team are obvious. Thomas has speed and can pack a punch, a capacity that earned him ACC linebacker of the week honors after recording nine tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble against South Florida. Jackson has a knack for getting off blocks and getting to the ball.

Sophomore Demetrius Knight appears to be a potential star. His combination of speed, size and tenacity earned him a spot on multiple special-teams units last season, no small accomplishment for a player who came to Tech having been a high-school quarterback.

It appears that Bruce Jordan-Swilling, who played as a backup linebacker in his first three seasons and suffered a season-ending foot injury in the seventh game of the season, will give running back a shot in the spring. At the same time, running back Jerry Howard will try linebacker. Both are seeking a different path to playing time.

Howard has the build for the position, and his success at B-back for former coach Paul Johnson (739 rushing yards and seven in his first two seasons) would indicate that he’s ready for the contact.

Coach Geoff Collins will add three freshman linebackers in the summer — Khatavian Franks and Tyson Meiguez from Creekside High and Khaya Wright from Miami.

THE SERIES

Monday: Special teams
Tuesday: Defensive line
Today: Linebackers
Thursday: Defensive backs
Friday: Offensive line
Saturday: Tight ends
Sunday: Quarterbacks
Monday: Wide receivers
Tuesday: Running backs

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