New Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator Nate Woody instructs during 2018 Georgia Tech Football Spring Game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Friday, April 20, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The young Jackets who are showing up in Tech’s new defense

They were merely two plays out of 110 snaps in Friday’s spring game and out of perhaps hundreds of practice snaps throughout Georgia Tech’s spring practice. One was a tackle that likely didn’t register much with the 8,500 in attendance at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The other two was an interception, one of two takeaways in the spring game.

The plays’ authors were sophomore safety Tariq Carpenter and redshirt freshman safety Kaleb Oliver, two of the “hybrid” defenders recruited in the 2017 signing class. They were among the many young players on Tech’s defense who caught the notice of teammates and coaches this spring and demonstrated that they could flourish with new defensive coordinator Nate Woody, in whose system speed and quickness are paramount.

“One of the neat things about what we’re doing now, it’s really simple and those guys, you can get your guys that can run out there, the athletes, and they can just play,” coach Paul Johnson said.

On the second drive of the game, Blue-team (first-string) quarterback Lucas Johnson stepped up in the pocket and fired a downfield pass to wide receiver Brad Stewart, streaking down the field outside the numbers. Stewart was open momentarily, but Carpenter, playing in a deep zone, rushed over from the hash mark and timed his leap in front of Stewart to come down with the ball. It was the sort of playmaking that Tech has not had a lot of from its safeties in recent seasons.

On a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line later in the first quarter, White-team A-back Omahri Jarrett took a toss to the east sideline. Fellow A-back Xavier Gantt targeted Oliver for a cut block. With his long reach, Oliver redirected Gantt to the turf with seeming ease, freeing himself to twist down Jarrett for a 1-yard gain, delaying the White team’s advancement to the end zone for one more play. Oliver showed agility, technique and strength all in one play.

Other young players showed up. Redshirt freshman linebacker Gentry Bonds, another hybrid defender (so called for their ability to play more than one position), jolted the ball loose from B-back Jordan Ponchez-Mason in the second quarter, creating the other turnover in the game. Early-enrollee freshman linebacker Charlie Thomas, who played with the first-string defense, popped free on blitzes to bring pressure for the White team. Sophomore linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling, who is being counted on to build on his promising freshman season, had three tackles for the White team. Sophomore defensive end Antwan Owens had six tackles for the Blue team (second-string defense).

“I think we have some guys that can run,” Johnson said.

Young players are particularly concentrated at linebacker and in the secondary. Tech’s two-deep defense this fall might have 11 freshmen or sophomores.

“I’m extremely excited to have guys like that playing right beside me,” linebacker Brant Mitchell said. “That’s always good. Like I’ve said before, the competition it brings, too, when you’ve got younger guys coming up, it’s healthy. You’ve got guys that come out of their shell a little bit and start to work a little bit harder when they’re being pushed. I think it’s great, and I’m excited to see what this season brings with some of the younger guys.”

Besides Thomas, Mitchell played alongside another early enrollee, linebacker Quez Jackson, who had six tackles for the Blue-team defense, two for loss.

“I think JaQuez has a chance to be a good player,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I don’t know that he played – (from observing) just standing behind the huddle – I don’t think he played as well (Friday) as he’s played in scrimmages, but he’s a good player. He’s going to help us.”

Sophomore linebacker Jaquan Henderson collected two tackles for loss for the Blue team. His speed at the outside linebacker spot could be a difference-making element for the Jackets this fall and seasons beyond.

“I don’t like to think (on the field),” Henderson said. “I like to go out and just play fast, and the defense fits my style.”

Johnson said that last year, Henderson was “overwhelmed” trying to figure out the various defensive schemes.

“I think Jaquan could be really good rushing the passer and using his speed and doing that kind of thing,” Johnson said. “I’m anxious to see him play.”

Nearly all of the defensive players on the roster were recruited to play for former defensive coordinator Ted Roof. After one spring, they seem good fits for Woody’s defense all the same.

“I think the defense is a good fit for Tech and the players we can get here,” Johnson said.

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