Georgia Tech defensive line has tools, may need time

Georgia Tech defensive ends coach Larry Knight does not lack for belief in his players.

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He said that if sophomore Noah Collins can stay focused, “the sky’s the limit for that guy, it really is.” Josh Robinson is “very dependable.” Sylvain Yondjouen, fully healthy after an ACL tear in 2020, is “an energy guy.” Keion White is a player that could command double-team attention coming off the edge.

New defensive tackles coach David Turner exudes similar good feeling. D’Quan Douse has been the most consistent tackle in the preseason. Compared to spring practice, Turner has seen Makius Scott take a step forward and play at a faster speed. Zeek Biggers is gaining confidence after a shoulder injury that kept him out of spring practice and “is starting to come around,” Turner said.

Given time, it’s clear that both coaches believe that their players can make an impact. What Turner and Knight don’t have, though, is a timeline on when that will happen. For instance, Knight said that the defensive ends can win one-on-one matchups and cause trouble for opposing quarterbacks – a defining task for the position.

“We’ve just got a lot of work to do to get to it,” he said. “We have guys that have the natural ability, absolutely. I just have to continue to coach ‘em up on their technique, and they have to continue to work the way that they’ve been working, and we’ll get to that point.”

Whether they and their cohorts at defensive tackle can get there, or at least approach that standard, will have no small bearing on what kind of season the Yellow Jackets have in 2022. Tech’s defense was often trampled last season – the Jackets gave up 7 yards per play in half of their 12 games – and factored in the team’s 3-9 finish. The defensive front that the Jackets will call upon this season may well have the capacity to stand as an unyielding bulwark, but it lacks much experience attempting the task.

From last year’s defense, the Jackets lost both starting defensive ends and three of the four defensive tackles who played the most snaps (with T.K. Chimedza the lone returnee of the four). And, it should be noted, it was a group that had trouble staying in its gaps against the run (the Jackets allowed 182 rushing yards per game, 100th in FBS) and consistently pressuring the passer (Tech’s 1.7 sacks per game was tied for 98th).

Of Tech’s returnees on the defensive line, only Chimedza has started more than five career games, with 12.

“I would say the defensive line gives me concern,” ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain Roddy Jones said. “When you lose your two best pass rushers (Jared Ivey and Jordan Domineck, both to the transfer portal), at least statistically, I think that’s cause for concern.”

White bears the burden of being the difference maker for this group. White’s arrival was highly anticipated last year following his transfer from Old Dominion, where he had amassed 19 tackles for loss in the 2019 season. However, an ankle injury prior to last preseason limited him to playing in only the last four games of the season.

Perhaps as athletically gifted as any player on the roster with an uncommon package of size, strength and quickness, White has dedication and maturity to match, according to Knight.

“Even when he was injured, he was showing up at everything, working hard at everything, pushing others, being a positive influence on the team,” Knight said. “And now, having him back healthy, he’s able to do that, but in between the lines.”

At 6-foot-5 and 286 pounds, coaches want to get White snaps at defensive tackle, also.

“I would imagine he’s a guy that we can use in several positions,” Turner said.

Douse (one tackle in a limited role last season) has caught Turner’s attention and is a candidate to start.

“Every day he shows up, he doesn’t say anything,” Turner said. “You can yell at him, you can get on him, it just rolls off his back. He keeps rolling. I’m pleased with where he is.”

Biggers, whose size (6-6, 341 pounds) remains mind-boggling, had nine tackles last season in limited appearances as a freshman.

“He’s just got to understand there’s going to be some hard coaching, and he’s just got to listen sometimes to what I’m saying and not how I’m saying it and keep rolling,” Turner said. “But he’s starting to come along.”

Scott is one of two team members selected to wear No. 8 (wide receiver Nate McCollum is the other), now an honor given to the players that best exemplify the spirit of the late Demaryius Thomas, who wore that number in becoming an All-American for the Jackets. Scott received exhortations from two notable Thomas teammates, Pro Football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and Tech great Morgan Burnett.

“They told me to honor it well,” he said. “No pressure, just honor his name, honor the number and just have a chip on my shoulder whenever I go out there and play.”

Transfer Daniel Carson (Western Illinois) and Akelo Stone are also possibilities to be in the tackle rotation.

At end, Kevin Harris and Kyle Kennard are leading candidates to play opposite White at the rush end spot. Kennard, in his third season, had 15 tackles last season and two sacks, both most among returning defensive linemen. Kennard said he has gained in maturity and strength, the latter of which should help him getting off blocks.

“I feel like I’ve always been a decent pass rusher, but it’s been a problem with me being physical and being violent and holding stuff down,” he said.

Yondjouen and Robinson will likely back up White.

“It’s been a year now since I had my injury, so back on my speed, back on gaining weight, stronger, faster – getting all that back,” Yondjouen said. “So I’m excited.”

The addition of a healthy White, the development of players including Kennard, Douse, Biggers and Scott and the added benefit of a veteran coach in Turner could lift the group’s level of play. It requires a dose of optimism and belief to count on the line to surpass last year’s level of play with a group that largely has yet to prove it. But, Kennard and others, bearing chips on their shoulders, hold only high aspirations.

“Every day, we come in the meeting rooms, we talk about leading the conference in pass rush, leading the conference in run defense,” Kennard said. “We preach those goals every day, so we’re working toward it.”