What Georgia Tech is doing to improve its pass rush this spring

The status of where Georgia Tech’s pass rush is going into the 2017 season can be encapsulated in one statistic.

Defensive end Antonio Simmons was second in the ACC with 12 hurries, which is particularly impressive considering he did it in limited snaps as a pass-rush specialist. However, Simmons had one sack, which is not particularly impressive, considering he was a pass-rush specialist.

“We just didn’t finish as much as Pat (Gamble) did, so it’s like, we did good, but we’re just trying to take our game to the next level,” Simmons said.

A focus of Tech’s spring practice will, as ever, be developing a consistent pass rush that can impact games. Tech was 114th last year in sacks per game at 1.39, according to cfbstats.com. Consequently, Tech was 100th nationally in defensive passing efficiency rating on third down (136.16). Further, the Yellow Jackets will have to do it without graduated defensive tackle Patrick Gamble, who led the team with 7.5 sacks.

Since Jeremiah Attaochu’s All-American season in 2013, when Tech finished 25th nationally in sacks per game (2.62), Tech has been 108th (1.43), tied for 120th (1.17) and then 114th last season.

“That’s something that we work on all the time, and definitely it’s something we try to get better at every day,” coach Paul Johnson said. “We’ll see.”

Defensive line coach Mike Pelton has some talent to work with in ends Simmons, Anree Saint-Amour and KeShun Freeman. Saint-Amour had four sacks last season. Like Simmons, Freeman was able to get close, but couldn’t close the deal. He had nine hurries, which was fifth in the ACC, but just half a sack, not enough for a defensive end with 13 starts. Freeman is a capable run defender whose effort is unquestioned, but he realizes there’s more he can do as a senior.

“It wasn’t where I wanted to be, and I know I can do better,” he said. “I’m just ready to work on it.”

Simmons said that he wants to improve his bend, the ability to get his hips low as he turns the corner around offensive tackles on pass rushes around the edge. He also wants to develop as a run defender, which would enable defensive coordinator Ted Roof to keep him on the field as an every-down player. Freeman said the focus of the line is on the fundamentals – hand placement, eye placement, footwork and the like.

The more Tech can develop its linemen to create pressure with a four-man front, the less it will have to rely on blitz pressure that leaves the secondary more vulnerable. At times last season, Roof sent as many as seven men at opposing quarterbacks to create pressure.

“Right now in the spring, we’re just making sure everyone is doing those small things, really well and close to as perfect as possible,” Freeman said. “That’ll lead to us reaching the next level.”

Tech finished well. The Jackets recorded 10 of their 18 sacks in the final four games of the season, including five against Virginia Tech. Not surprisingly, four of Tech’s best five games for defensive passing efficiency against power-conference teams were in the final four games – against Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky.

“You can just go back to the Virginia Tech game,” safety Corey Griffin said. “Those guys were getting after it. And anytime they’re getting after it, it makes our job easier. And when we cover longer, it makes their job easier. So everything is on a string.”

The burden will be on the ends. Gamble’s graduation, along with backup Francis Kallon, leaves the interior fairly inexperienced. Desmond Branch, Brentavious Glanton and Kyle Cerge-Henderson are among the candidates. Branch, a converted end, brings some quickness to the interior.

“We all know we’ve got to step up and take the load on the outside, because we’re the veteran group,” Simmons said. “On the inside, none of them have really played, so we know we’ve got to step our game up.”