Big role planned for Charlie Thomas in Georgia Tech’s new-look defense

Charlie Thomas runs during the first day of spring practice for Georgia Tech football in February at Alexander Rose Bowl Field. (Photo Jenn Finch)

Combined ShapeCaption
Charlie Thomas runs during the first day of spring practice for Georgia Tech football in February at Alexander Rose Bowl Field. (Photo Jenn Finch)

Georgia Tech’s defense is undergoing a metamorphosis this spring following its ineffective play in the 2021 season. The plans of coach Geoff Collins and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker for improved performance will depend heavily on players such as linebacker Charlie Thomas and specifically Thomas himself.

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“We have a plan in terms of structure, what kind of plays we want to run, how we want to pressure, how we want to do coverages right now,” new linebackers coach Jason Semore said. “We’re growing with our identity and finding what guys can do. We know that Charlie’s a big piece of that because of the flexibility that he has.”

After the team’s Thursday practice, the ninth of spring practice, Semore described elements of the change in approach. Much of it will be the same, like playing out of a 4-2-5 alignment. But not everything.

“Just personnel-wise and how we schematically structure our defense will be a little more personnel-driven – where bodies are lined up, where is speed lined up on the field, where are tight ends lined up on the field,” Semore said.

Thomas’ versatility as a linebacker who can play close to the line but also in space – “he’s a rare dude that can blitz, he can fit the core and he can cover people,” Semore said – will be a key piece of the puzzle.

“Just personnel-wise and how we schematically structure our defense will be a little more personnel-driven – where bodies are lined up, where is speed lined up on the field, where are tight ends lined up on the field."

- new linebackers coach Jason Semore

“Charlie gives us that flexibility, and he’s a really smart football player and allows us to move him around within the structure of the defense to get matchups that we want,” Semore said. “Because that’s another way people put stress on you in (the ACC). You’ve got a little DB and a tight end’s right there and he’s blocking him at the point of attack. That’s a problem, so Charlie gives us the flexibility to do that within the scheme and within the structure.”

Linebacker Ayinde Eley described it as an attempt to get “like bodies on like bodies” and put players in position to succeed.

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“Football’s turning into a matchup game,” he said. “Offenses are finding the matchup they like week by week. So as a defense, you just have to learn to adjust to that and find the ways to get the matchups that you like.”

As offenses try to create and exploit mismatches, Thomas and players with his versatility give the defense the ability to answer back. The more positions that one player can defend, the easier it is to match up.

“Basically, wherever we line up at, we just look at their formation, and we line up off them,” Thomas said. “So now, it’s not like you’ve got to adjust. We already know the adjustment.”

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Thomas’ versatility has been well-demonstrated in a Yellow Jackets uniform. First for former defensive coordinator Nate Woody and now for Thacker, he has played a variety of linebacker spots. In 2020, he was used at nickel back and, in a pinch, at defensive end. It followed a high school career at Thomasville High when he lined up at safety, cornerback, running back, return specialist and even one game at quarterback. He combines agility, speed, instincts and skill at tackling and defending the pass.

“We put him out in space a lot, and we pressure him, we blitz him a lot, and he is just such a good football player,” Collins said of Thomas last fall.

Thomas put that versatility on display early last season, when he intercepted two passes against Kennesaw State, made a career-high 12 tackles against Clemson the next week and then roughed up North Carolina for 4.5 tackles for loss in the game after that.

In his fourth season, Thomas finished with 70 tackles, a career high, and led the Jackets with 10 tackles for loss, also a career high. He did so despite shoulder injuries that hampered his play as the season wore on.

“Honestly, I would say it impacted me a lot,” Thomas said. “Some games, I was kind of timid just because of my shoulders or something like my elbow was banged up, so I couldn’t take on blocks and play blocks as physical as I wanted to.”

Thomas said a goal of his in the offseason is to add muscle mass so he can better withstand the rigors of play.

Tech will need as much playmaking out of Thomas as he can manage. The Jackets defense, 117th in FBS last season in total defense, lost eight of its top 11 tacklers – Thomas is one of the three returnees, along with Eley and defensive back Jaylon King. Among the eight are the leading tackler (Quez Jackson) and starting edge rushers Jordan Domineck and Jared Ivey. Having a player who can win matchups and make difference-making plays would be extremely helpful.

Thomas figures to play alongside Eley. Sophomore Trenilyas Tatum should see plenty of time, as could Demetrius Knight.

“I feel like we put our players in the best position to make plays,” Thomas said. “I think it’s going good. We’re learning it good. It’s a smooth transition.”