Georgia Tech defensive back Tre Swilling (3) intercepts a pass intended for Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell (17) at Memorial Stadium Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Clemson, S.C.  
Photo: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

Georgia Tech secondary is best defensive position group

This is the fourth installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia Tech’s spring football practice, which begins March 3. Today: Secondary | Yesterday: LinebackersTomorrow: Offensive line

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Who’s gone: S Christian Campbell, S Ajani Kerr
Who’s back: S Derrik Allen, CB Jaytlin Askew, S Tariq Carpenter, CB Jordan Huff, CB Kenan Johnson, S Jaylon King, S Kaleb Oliver, S Avery Showell, CB Myles Sims, S Jeremiah Smith, CB Tre Swilling, S Juanyeh Thomas, CB Wesley Walker, CB Zamari Walton
Who’s new: CB Jalen Huff
Projected starters: Carpenter, Oliver, Thomas, Swilling, Walton

Sitting out last season after transferring from Notre Dame, safety Derrik Allen tried to make the best of his time at Georgia Tech.

The Lassiter High grad who enrolled at Tech for the fall semester spent the season on coach Geoff Collins’ developmental squad, practicing against the Yellow Jackets offense.

“Derrik Allen might be the most popular guy on the developmental team,” Collins said in December. “They love him because he came down there, he was a Rivals 100 (prospect), he was a high four-star (player), an elite recruit. He doesn’t act like it. He just goes down there, he works, he cares, all those things. He’s going to be a really good player.”

Just as defensive end Antonneous Clayton and wide receiver Marquez Ezzard bided their time on the developmental team after transferring from Florida and Miami, respectively, Allen spent 2019 waiting to gain eligibility and figures to provide Tech with a jolt to the team in the defensive backfield.

Allen will take part in his first spring practice with the Jackets when they begin March 3. Given that he transferred in August after preseason practice had begun, this spring figures to be an important time for him to drill the schemes and techniques of Tech’s defense.

Allen is seen as a player with all the tools necessary to succeed. He didn’t play in 2018 in his first season at Notre Dame, but he was nonetheless a four-star prospect rated the No. 106 player in the 2018 class (247Sports Composite). He’ll compete with safeties Tariq Carpenter and Juanyeh Thomas, both returning starters, and nickel Kaleb Oliver, also a regular on last season’s defense.

At corner, Tre Swilling and Zamari Walton also return as starters, Swilling for his third season in the starting lineup. Further, cornerbacks Myles Sims, Kenan Johnson and Wesley Walker and safety Jaylon King are young players expected to challenge for playing time. Cornerback Jalen Huff is an early-enrollee freshman from Buford High who will get a jump start this spring.

The play of the starters in particular makes the secondary the best position group on defense. The challenge for that group — Carpenter, Thomas, Oliver, Swilling and Walton, of whom only Carpenter is a senior — is to develop consistency.

Each has demonstrated playmaking ability — Swilling’s standout game against Clemson in the season opener comes to mind — but can still improve. A review of the Jackets’ first half of their loss to Duke offered plenty of both the good and bad.

Georgia Tech's Tariq Carpenter (2) defends against Duke wide receiver Jalon Calhoun (5) Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019 in Durham, N.C.
Photo: Ben McKeown/AP

Swilling had a textbook pass breakup on a pass down the sideline early in the first quarter, but later was beaten down the same sideline by receiver Darrell Harding in the second quarter for a 41-yard pass play (Carpenter’s chances were not helped by a five-man pass rush that was unable to pressure quarterback Quentin Harris). After Duke receiver Jalon Calhoun got past Oliver at the line for a deep ball, Carpenter came in safety help and was in position to break up the pass but came up short. In the red zone on the same drive, however, Duke tested Oliver with Calhoun on two pass plays in a row, and Oliver covered both well, leading to the Blue Devils kicking a field goal.

Carpenter missed an open-field tackle on a pass play later ruled an incompletion, but came back on the same drive to make a high-level pass breakup on a deep ball into the end zone, using his side to shield off tight end Noah Gray.

The more that the secondary can learn to play at its peak in the spring, the greater the chance that the Jackets can cut short opponent drives in the fall with third-down pass breakups and interceptions. Tech ranked 77th last season in opponent passing efficiency, and its seven interceptions ranked tied for 100th.

Between 2015 and 2018, Collins’ defenses at Florida and Temple averaged 14.5 interceptions per season.

Safeties coach Nathan Burton and cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich have plenty to work with and again will be called on to pull out more of the ability that they have in their groups. In the pass game, while the pass rush figures to be better, chances are the back end will be defending against quarterbacks with more time to throw than Tech might like.

THE SERIES

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

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