5 things learned this week at Georgia Tech spring practice

Georgia Tech will complete its third week of spring practice Saturday with the first scrimmage of the spring. The Yellow Jackets had practices this week Tuesday and Thursday mornings, with the final portions open to media. Here are five observations from practice and interviews.

1. Comparing schemes

The scheme that defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker uses is different in its structure than the 3-4 of former defensive coordinator Nate Woody. The defense can play out of a 4-2-5 or 4-3, as well as 3-4 and 3-3. Two players described another difference, that it is more aggressive in the way it attacks offenses than Woody’s version.

While it might not be a surprise for players to say that – they likely wouldn’t volunteer that a new way of playing is less aggressive – it is noteworthy in that Woody’s defense was advertised as being a step up in its aggressiveness from the coordinator that he replaced, Ted Roof.

The Jackets secured 25 takeaways last season, tied for 16th nationally, which was 15 more than the 2017 season. The aggressive style was credited as part of the reason for the increase. (Temple, with coach Geoff Collins and Thacker in charge of the defense, did even better, with 31 takeaways, tied for third.)

“It’s just a different scheme type,” safety Kaleb Oliver said. “We still have the attacking mentality as we had in past years, we’re just emphasizing it this year.”

“Way more aggressive,” defensive end Jordan Domineck said. “We have so many different stunts and blitz packages that I can’t even talk about right now because we’re still installing things.”

2. Rolling nickel

In position meetings, safeties coach Nathan Burton is responsible for the strong and free safeties, and also takes the nickel backs. But, he said, the nickel – normally a fifth defensive back – doesn’t necessarily have to be a safety.

“The nickel can be anybody in our defense,” Burton said. “He can be a linebacker, he can be a safety, he can be a corner, so we’re all actually teaching the nickel out of our individual groups.”

Oliver, who played strong safety last season behind Tariq Carpenter, has been getting snaps at nickel this spring. Oliver said it has been a simple transition, as he played nickel in his last two years of high school.

“So I felt like me going down, getting closer to the box, it’d be something that’d be easy to adapt to,” Oliver said.

Burton did not hold back in his praise of Oliver.

“He’s a great kid,” he said. “He’s doing thing, he’s working hard, he’s just fun to be around. He’s just figuring out how to play the football game at a high level. (He’s) playing with great technique, playing with good poise. He’s a good kid.”

3. Trying out new positions

Position flexibility is a phrase that Collins and his staff use often, describing his desire to develop players who can play multiple positions, often on opposite sides of the ball. Beyond making more use of the roster, he sees it as a way to give players a better chance at the NFL, which in turn helps recruiting.

The Jackets have a short-yardage package on offense in which defensive end Justice Dingle is at tight end and defensive tackle Quon Griffin is playing fullback.

For Dingle, it’s not a stretch. He played tight end in high school. As for Griffin, “I can’t wait for them to call my number,” he said.

Part of the reason is a potential beneficiary of his blocking – Griffin’s brother Jamious, who was one of the jewels of Tech’s 2019 signing class after earning Gatorade state player of the year honors as a running back at Rome High. The younger Griffin actually happened to be at a recent practice when his brother, listed at 6-foot-0 and 275 pounds, lined up in the offensive backfield.

“He saw me getting some blocks,” Quon Griffin said. “He was like, I can’t wait to get behind you. And I’m leading the path for him. I just have visions, that fourth-down-and-inches, on the goal line, just block for my brother, and he’s just diving in the end zone.”

4. Back home

Tech legend Marco Coleman, now coaching the defensive ends and outside linebackers, sounds quite content to be back on campus.

“Coming out on the football field, it’s just fun,” he said. “Just walking in the building, seeing all these young men, not just the defensive linemen, but all the players that represent where I once walked through – it makes me proud because of the type of young men (on the team). I can say that the previous staff did a heck of a job of finding great character young men. It’s really tough to find a player on this team that you’ve got a bad word about them.”

One who has made Coleman proud is defensive end Jaquan Henderson. He mostly played special teams as a freshman, played some outside linebacker in the 3-4 last season and now is at end. Coleman suggested that coaches are still figuring out his role and trying to find the best way to utilize his speed.

“Right now, he’s just continuing to work and he’s doing a good job with that, continuing to get better,” Coleman said. “He’s showing a lot of flashes of that speed. You can’t have enough speed on defense, that’s for sure.”

5. Walk-ons seizing chances

Walk-ons have been getting plenty of opportunities to make a mark during the spring. Four who have made impressions are running back Josh Blancato, defensive lineman Djimon Brooks, cornerback Devin Smith and tight end Josh Tukes.

“He has the skill set of a scholarship player, a Division-I scholarship player,” defensive line coach Larry Knight said of Brooks. “He takes to coaching, he applies it, and right now he’s above the line, and he’s doing everything he can to contribute. So I’m very happy with his progress right now.”

“Above the line” is Collins’ version of a depth chart. Players above the line are deemed able to contribute on the field.

“If you have the abilities to contribute to the team, you can get on the field,” Knight said. “That’s something coach Collins has proven at our last stop (at Temple), is we play walk-ons.”