A year ago, the Tech secondary was not an elite group, but had a knack for coming through with well-timed plays. This time, the defensive backs seemed cursed by unlucky bounces and repeatedly came up a hair short to get hands on balls or bring down tacklers.
In his second full season starting at linebacker, Brant Mitchell was fourth on the team in tackles with 51 despite missing two games to injury. However, for whatever reason, he couldn’t make the sort of impact plays that could have changed the fortune of a team that lost three games in the final minutes. He had three quarterback hurries, one more than last season. He had 1.5 tackles for loss, fewer than his three in 2016.
Defensive end KeShun Freeman, a four-year starter and captain, had 22 tackles, three tackles for loss, no sacks and one quarterback hurry. Statistically speaking, his freshman season was his best, when he had 54 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Over the final three seasons, he had 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. After starting seven games a year ago, defensive tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson saw his role diminished in the rotation.
The numbers don’t say everything about a player. A scheme or play call may be designed for a player to play a role that frees others to make the play. Interceptions and pass breakups can be influenced by the pass rush and the coverage called. But it would be difficult to say any of the eight returning starters was a consistent impact player for the defense.
For the first time since 2010, there wasn’t one defensive player for Tech who didn’t earn at least honorable mention in All-ACC voting.
They have largely been outstanding representatives of the school and their team. Their effort could rarely be questioned. However, there are questions about much else – recruiting, development, scheme and execution. There is a reason that Roof’s future with the team is in question.
For the defense, the most lasting memories and feelings may be connected to the unit’s play in the final two games, against Duke and Georgia, when the Jackets gave up 81 points in 17 possessions, which excludes both teams’ final clock-killing drives. Fair or not, it obscures other moments, such as the game-changing interception by Lawrence Austin against Jacksonville State, a two-interception game by Gray against North Carolina and Mitchell’s nine-tackle game against Virginia Tech.
On the whole, the defense was either pretty good (a unit doesn’t rank in the top 15 nationally in third-down defense by accident) or ineffective, sometimes in the same game. But, it’s hard to shake the feeling that a considerable opportunity was lost, not least for the eight returning starters who could have helped shape a consistently effective defense but were unable.