With his team in need of a momentum-changing play Saturday, Georgia Tech cornerback Tre Swilling settled into his pre-snap stance across the line of scrimmage from Pittsburgh wide receiver Taysir Mack and processed what he saw across the line of scrimmage.
On the opening play of their drive after returning a Tech fumble from out of the end zone to the Tech 21-yard line, the Panthers lined up with three receivers to the wide side of the field and, curiously, quarterback Kenny Pickett under center and not out of their standard shotgun set.
Hours of watching Pitt game video and studious note taking enabled Swilling to recognize what was coming. At the snap, Swilling, lined up across from the receiver farthest from the ball, bolted at an angle into the Pitt backfield, where Pickett had pulled out from center and was throwing a lateral to slot receiver Aaron Mathews.
As soon as he made the catch, Swilling planted his right shoulder into Mathews’ right hip, bringing him down for a 4-yard loss. Three plays later, rather than converting the momentum of the fumble return into a touchdown, Pitt settled for a field goal.
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Swilling’s tackle for loss was a victory for preparation, an area that has become his expertise.
“He’s always watching film,” linebacker Quez Jackson said. “He’s always trying to do what he can to get better. Just things that great players do.”
Swilling, a sophomore, has been solid in his play in his second season as a starter. His seven pass breakups are tied for seventh in the ACC. Tested often, he has more than held his own. Beyond that, his preparation habits have set an example for a young team in transition.
Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker described himself as “very pleased with his attitude, his effort and most pleased with his preparation. We’ve tried to teach other guys on our defense to prepare like Tre Swilling does for a game.”
The easy conclusion is that being the son of Pat Swilling, a Tech great and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, blessed Swilling with all the physical tools necessary to compete in the ACC. But it’s also the lessons that Swilling learned from his father about preparing, as well as his own inner drive, that have propelled him in his pursuit of greatness.
Growing up, “I felt like there’s always going to be somebody that’s faster than you, more athletic, bigger and stronger,” Swilling said. “You’ve got to find another edge, another way to get it.”
Swilling has a weekly routine that begins Sunday as players are recovering from their game the previous day. Before players meet for treatment, practice and a team meeting, Swilling watches the previous game’s video on his own. On Monday, it’s a lot more video. Sometimes, he said, he sits in on a meeting of the defensive coaching staff as the game plan is developed.
“Just to be able to learn some things,” he said. “Pick up some tendencies that they have that I can go back to my guys and be able to preach.”
On Tuesday afternoon, he meets with cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich for a one-on-one session. On Wednesday, when Tech practices in the afternoon, he comes in early watches more video as he gets treatment, “just kind of looking at stuff and watching just my receiver that I think I’m going against this week.” On Thursday night, after his environmental science lab, he watches more video on his own.
On Friday and Saturday before the game, he goes over the notes that he’s taken during the week, he said, final reviews before he can put his knowledge to use.
“It might be who they’re throwing the ball to the most,” Swilling said. “If I wrote myself a note to stay more square or be violent at the point of attack. Just those little things like that, just to keep that in my mind.”
While he has been on the wrong end of a few big plays on occasion, his play has met the approval of his coaches.
“Solid season, and again, I’ll try to make sure I reiterate this enough,” Thacker said. “We’re aggressive at the corner position, so we put them in a lot of competitive situations. You can go through a 75-play game on defense, and they may be getting challenged four or five times, and he wins the majority of those battles, but one time they can make an elite catch, which happened to him on Saturday (against Pitt).”
It is interesting to note that Swilling said that this is the first time in his career, even going back to his youth-football days, that he has played press-man coverage. The transition has meant learning new techniques for the position.
As Pat Swilling sees it, Popovich “has brought the best out of Tre from a technical standpoint.”
On Saturday, Swilling will tangle with Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins. After a week of preparing, he’ll get to show what he can do.
“Because (fans) don’t get to see the plays that I make on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, making a play on a ball or intercepting a ball,” he said. “All they want to see is the final product that happens on Saturday.”
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