Georgia Tech secondary has less experience - but greater trust

Helpful and communicative, Georgia Tech safety Jaylon King offered this example of a possible communication failure in the secondary from last season. In the Yellow Jackets’ defense, when two wide receivers are split out wide, and the outside receiver goes in motion behind the inside receiver, there is a call where the cornerback will be responsible for the stationary receiver and the safety will pick up the receiver in motion.

However, the rules can change depending on how close the opponent is to Tech’s end zone, with the assignments getting switched. So, King said, trouble could arise if the opponent had the ball on the Tech 25-yard line.

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“Some people call that high red zone, some people call it open field,” King said. “When the corner and safety aren’t in the same (meeting) room and aren’t getting the same coaching, it was hard for us to determine who was going to take that point guy and who was going to take the back guy from time to time.”

The frequency with which defensive backs misread one another in that way paved the way for the Jackets to rank last in FBS in passing-efficiency defense, flaws that led coach Geoff Collins to dismiss safeties coach Nathan Burton and cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich and replace them with one coach to supervise the secondary, Travares Tillman.

With Tillman now the secondary’s lone shepherd, the former Tech captain and seven-year NFL veteran leads meetings for all of the defensive backs as opposed to splitting them up between safeties and cornerbacks. That change has addressed – if not solved – miscommunication issues, players have said.

“Just with the rooms being separated, I don’t feel like we would always be on one accord,” cornerback Kenan Johnson said. “It’s just been a lot better that we’re now meshing together in one room.”

It is a rite of the preseason to claim that last season’s problems have been eradicated, that team chemistry is better, that players are stronger, faster and in better condition. Every new coach is better than the one he replaced. But, among the Jackets’ defensive backs, the repetition of their observation that communication and chemistry are better appears to go beyond standard chatter.

“Honestly, I would say we’re a lot tighter as a group,” nickel back Kaleb Edwards said. “I think it’s more of a family bond with us now. It makes things on the field a whole lot better, makes communication a whole lot easier.”

Safety Derrik Allen, likely to start alongside King, offered another example of Tech’s communication challenges. He outlined a situation in which the safeties relay a certain coverage to the cornerbacks. But one of the cornerbacks misinterprets his assignment in that call, thinking that he is supposed to play press coverage against a receiver rather than fall back.

“And that can really throw off the whole thing,” Allen said.

Such misunderstandings were rampant last season, despite the Jackets fielding an experienced secondary. As a consequence, the Jackets gave up 52 pass plays of 20 yards or more, tied for 119th in FBS.

It is why, Allen went on, it’s important for all defensive backs to meet together and to make sure everyone understands coverages and responsibilities in the same way.

“I think they’re doing a really good job so far,” Tillman said. “There’s always work to do, but I think we are ahead of schedule.”

Before the Jackets open the season against No. 4 Clemson on Sept. 5 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (8 p.m., ESPN), there is more work to do.

“Pre-snap communication I think is good,” he said. “When things start moving (on offense), there’s some guys that can handle that and some guys that can’t. So we’re constantly working on that in the film room.”

Or, in other words, the challenge of making the correct call when the offense is shifting and going in motion before the snap is as much a part of the problem as actually relaying the calls.

“Just recognizing and getting it from one side of the field to the other, getting to the corners, you’ve got to be a little more vocal,” Tillman said. “Like I said, it’s coming. It’s a work in progress. We’ve still got some practices to go before we get to that game, and I’m confident we can work out all those kinks.”

One thing that Tillman can count on, apparently, is a more cohesive secondary.

“We’re not afraid to hold each other accountable,” Allen said. “Nobody’s on a different pedestal than anyone else.”

It’s an unusual group, with players connected by ties beyond Tech. Three have transferred from Notre Dame. Two more came from Auburn. Notre Dame transfer K.J. Wallace has known Khari Gee, Kenyatta Watson and Allen since high school or earlier. Allen even remembers watching the horror movie “The Conjuring” with Wallace when they were 11.

“And I hate scary movies,” Allen said. “And it was like 3 o’clock (in the morning), and he thought it was so funny to go to the basement and just starting knocking on the door at 3 in the morning. I think I was traumatized for, like, two weeks. I wouldn’t sleep with the lights off.”

If that’s the height of discord within the group, Tillman most likely would take it. In July, cornerback Zamari Walton said the chemistry within the secondary last season was “way off,” particularly in the second half of the season. Trust between players was fractured. A secondary that was supposed to be a strength instead was a liability.

“I felt that it was just kind of going sideways,” Walton said.

Tech won’t have anywhere near the experience in the back end that last season’s team did. Of a potential starting five of King and Allen at safeties, Walton and Myles Sims at cornerback and Edwards at the nickel, that’s a group that has 36 combined starts, with 27 belonging to Walton, a three-year starter.

By comparison, last season’s starting secondary – safeties Juanyeh Thomas and Tariq Carpenter, cornerbacks Tre Swilling and Walton and nickel back Wesley Walker – had 107 combined starts before last season.

The experience may not be there, but if the Jackets simply can be in the right places, that can go a long way. Tillman is counting on better organization and communication, along with trust and a decent collection of talent, to take the Jackets’ secondary places that they could not reach last year.

“Tillman, he’s also made that family dynamic with us, and that makes us a lot more dangerous in the secondary,” Edwards said.