Georgia Tech defensive back Lance Austin (center) intercepts Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason during the fourth quarter, setting up the game-winning drive for a 28-27 victory for Georgia Tech on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Athens. Georgia Tech defenders Lawrence Austin (left) and Brandon Adams celebrate on the play. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Why takeaways could make the difference for Georgia Tech this season

There is no shortage of reasons to think that Georgia Tech’s defense can fashion itself into a highly effective unit this season. 

It starts with eight returning starters who will carry forward the experience accrued in a combined 136 starts. Beyond those eight, players such as defensive end Antonio Simmons, cornerback Lamont Simmons and linebackers Victor Alexander and Terrell Lewis have proven their worth as backups.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof is in his fifth season at Tech. He recruited every member of the defense, starting with safety Corey Griffin, whom Roof discovered at Sandy Creek High shortly after his hire in January 2013. A talented freshman class could have contributors this season, such as linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling.

To whatever degree results from the previous season can be a factor, Tech carries momentum from its final four games of the 2016 season, when the Jackets gave up 5.1 yards per play after giving up 6.7 in their first six games against power-conference opponents. They forced 10 turnovers in those four games after gaining only nine in the first eight.

Explaining Georgia Tech’s change in teaching the defense this spring

Barring a late injury, they’ll go into the season opener against Tennessee next Monday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game fairly healthy. The only defensive player that coach Paul Johnson has indicated will be out is backup linebacker David Curry.

“I think our guys on defense have high expectations, and I think they want to be good,” Johnson said. “And I think they’ll set a high standard. It’s got to start with them. You’ve got to understand what’s good and that’s what you play for.”

One particular area where the Jackets want to improve is in takeaways. Tech had 19 last season (tied for 67th nationally) and 17 in 2015 (tied for 92nd nationally) after its bumper crop of 29 (tied for 17th) in 2014. Alexander said that the defense wants to lead FBS in takeaways. In the past five seasons, the national leader has averaged 38.5 takeaways.

“In our (position) units, we’re talking about getting the ball out, becoming one of those teams that, when we’re on the field, we want the ball back in our hands each and every play,” Alexander said.

For a team that has been so efficient offensively, a defense that steals possessions has been a highly valuable asset. In Johnson’s nine years at Tech, the Jackets are 41-15 against FBS competition when they have gained at least two takeaways.

Among those 41 are some of the Jackets’ most memorable wins in Johnson’s tenure – last season’s wins over Virginia Tech and Georgia, the back-to-back wins in 2014 over Clemson and Georgia, the 68-50 win over North Carolina in 2012, the upset of then-No. 5 Clemson in 2011, the 2009 ACC championship win over Clemson and the “Miracle on North Avenue” win over Florida State in 2008.

However, Tech has unsurprisingly struggled without turnover contributions from the defense. Under Johnson, the Jackets are 5-18 when the opposition does not turn the ball over.

Particularly with five returning starters in the secondary, the Jackets have the pieces to be a turnover-creating force. Cornerbacks Step Durham and Lance Austin, nickel back Lawrence Austin and safeties A.J. Gray and Griffin have all shown a knack for takeaways, often in critical moments.

The more hopeful Tech fan might recall that the 2014 defense likewise had a secondary steeped in experience, including cornerback Chris Milton and safeties Jamal Golden, Isaiah Johnson and Demond Smith.

More is expected, too, from returning starters Brant Mitchell (linebacker) and KeShun Freeman (defensive end) to provide more playmaking pop. As an edge rusher, Simmons could be the sort of player who can cause hurried throws or create fumbles with hits on the passer.

Asking for two takeaways per game is no small request. Last year, only 19 teams averaged 2.0. But, on what figures to be a highly-charged night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Labor Day night, it would go a long way toward victory. It’s conceivable Tennessee might comply. Like Tech, the Volunteers will have a new quarterback in place, either junior Quinten Dormady or freshman Jarrett Guarantano.

Further, the Volunteers turned the ball over 26 times last year, tied for 10th most nationally. (They surrendered just 12 in 2015, tied for fourth fewest in the country.)

But a team that aspires to greatness – Griffin has proclaimed Tech’s ambition to return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in January for the national championship game – must take the steps that lead to it.

In 2014, “we had the ball bounce our way a lot,” Lawrence Austin said. “Hopefully, we have that same thing happen this year, but we’re still preparing. Got a long way to go.”

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