Georgia Tech defensive tackles believe they’re past growing pains

Georgia Tech defensive tackle Chris Martin during the first day of the team's preseason practice, Aug. 5, 2020. Georgia Tech football/Santino Stancato
Georgia Tech defensive tackle Chris Martin during the first day of the team's preseason practice, Aug. 5, 2020. Georgia Tech football/Santino Stancato

Credit: Georgia Tech football/Santino Stancato

Credit: Georgia Tech football/Santino Stancato

For as long as there’s plans for Georgia Tech to play a season, defensive-line coach Larry Knight’s pupils can enjoy their time back together.

“They’re excited to play ball,” Knight said Saturday, following Tech’s fourth preseason practice. “You can tell those guys missed each other. Some of our meetings are kind of a comedy show half of the time, with guys just getting on each other.”

Knight is hopeful for his group’s play to provide additional reason for conviviality. With a large group of returnees, Knight is counting on experience gained and bodies changed to raise the level of play out of his position group.

“I feel like we will be much better,” Knight said via video conference. “I think that you guys are going to see a much better brand of football from this group in particular, let alone the rest of the team.”

The play in the interior of Tech’s defensive line did not meet the expectations of perhaps anyone, evidenced in the Jackets’ finishing last in the ACC in rushing yards allowed per game (215.3). Against Georgia and its hefty line, for instance, Tech’s defensive tackles were frequently dislodged and overpowered as the Bulldogs amassed 500 yards of total offense (219 on the ground) in their 52-7 win.

There were reasons. For one, Tech’s starting defensive tackles in the game, T.K. Chimedza and Brentavious Glanton, were on average outweighed by Georgia’s starting guard-center-guard trio by almost 35 pounds. The vast difference was one reason coach Geoff Collins committed to his team adding 10 pounds per player over the offseason.

Also, the Jackets were playing a new scheme with new techniques, the Jackets’ third in as many seasons.

“I think what we did last year was not good enough,” Knight said. “I thought that for what I was asking them to do, everything that they were doing in the past, I changed all of it. So I understood and I knew there were going to be a lot of growing pains associated with that.”

Defensive tackle Chris Martin said that last season, he felt as though the line didn’t know the full scheme of the defense. After a full season, he said he feels much more comfortable.

“Now, it’s no longer just trying to follow X’s and O’s,” he said. “I can play within the scheme of the defense.”

Martin senses that Knight’s expectations have risen due to the increased knowledge base.

“He’s got a lot shorter temper, I think,” Martin said. “He’s not so much lenient on the simple mistakes, the mental lapses. He’s wanting to be more sharp and quick with that, especially with techniques, in year two, especially for older guys.”

Knight, too, recognizes the progress.

“The No. 1 thing that I’m noticing is now, before I get the words out of my mouth, they’re already coaching each other,” he said. “They know my coaching points, understand the coaching points, understand the why of the coaching point. And as soon as one of them sees one of their teammates mess up, they’re already grabbing him and saying, ‘Hey, your hand placement should be here.’ ‘Hey, you were too high.’ ‘Hey, your step was too flat. It should be this way or that way.’”

Knight is also encouraged by weight gains made since last season, even when quarantining measures sent players away from the team training table, back home or to live near campus and presumably prepare their own meals. Knight said that one of his players sent him photos of his meals and asked for feedback.

Previously, “those guys would come back (from breaks) and be way lighter than we wanted them to be,” Knight said. “This time, they came back and some of them were a little bit too heavy, but that’s better for us to work with, as far as our group, to be able to shed some of those pounds instead of getting here and it’s the other way around.”

Of returnees, Martin started six games. Chimedza started nine and was the leading tackler among tackles with 34 as a redshirt freshman. Djimon Brooks, recently put on scholarship, and Ja’Quon Griffin are two more who played regularly. Michael Lockhart and D’Quan Douse are redshirt freshmen. Akelo Stone is an incoming freshman. Antwan Owens, continuing to rehab a season-ending leg injury, is expected to split time between tackle and end.

Also, Jahaziel Lee is back for a second attempt at his senior season after breaking his fibula against The Citadel in the third game of the season, which enabled him to claim the season as a redshirt year. Lee, who had played on the offensive line for former coach Paul Johnson in his first three seasons, tried to play on both sides of the line last year before injuries shifted him full time to the offensive line. Playing defense full time “is very important so I can be very technique sound,” Lee said. “Because if I’m technique sound, then that allows me to go play.”

Lee has improvements to make, such as staying low out of his stance, but the full-time assignment ought to speed his development. Knight praised his drive to improve his game.

“You see the improvement every day, and I think by the time we get towards the beginning of the season, it’ll be even better,” Knight said.

Even before last year, defensive line play has not been a strength for Tech in recent seasons. Now a senior, Martin vows change.

“It’s just become more personal to us to really try to change that norm that’s been here for us for years, to really, really take off and be the players that coach Knight believes and sees us to be,” he said.