Georgia Tech secondary has strength at safety

Georgia Tech defensive back LaMiles Brooks (1) works on a drill with K.J. Wallace (16) during spring practice March 13, 2023. (Photo by Miguel Martinez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Georgia Tech defensive back LaMiles Brooks (1) works on a drill with K.J. Wallace (16) during spring practice March 13, 2023. (Photo by Miguel Martinez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

This is the final installment in an eight-part series breaking down each position group as the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets continue their spring practice, which will culminate in the annual spring intrasquad game at 1 p.m. April 15 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

As ever, there are holes to fill and questions to answer for Georgia Tech in spring practice. Coach Brent Key has to find replacements at linebacker and wide receiver and figure out who his starting quarterback will be.

He and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker have a more pleasant conundrum in the defensive backfield. How will they allot playing time between three safeties who’ve proved themselves?

“It is a luxury,” Thacker said this week.

Safety LaMiles Brooks was a standout in his first season as a starter, making 52 tackles, intercepting three passes and earning third-team All-ACC honors. At the other spot, Jaylon King gave the Jackets solid play before breaking his leg in the fifth game of the season. That opened an opportunity for freshman Clayton Powell-Lee. The one whom teammates and coaches like to call “Young Vet” was ready for the moment and went on to earn honorable mention for freshman All-American, with 48 tackles and three fumble recoveries.

“He played at an incredibly high level,” Thacker said of Powell-Lee.

The problem gets even better for Thacker, as one other spot where one of the three could go – nickel back – was filled effectively last season by K.J. Wallace, another returnee. Having four proven options for three spots has enabled Thacker to work them at different places and enhance the depth. The safety pairing arguably is the strongest position group on Key’s roster.

“That’s the group that has maturity right now,” Thacker said. “You can see it in their communication more so than anything.”

Last year, safeties made three of Tech’s biggest defensive plays of the season. At Virginia Tech, with the Hokies trying to add to a 27-22 lead in the fourth quarter, Powell-Lee intercepted a deflected pass to regain possession and set up the Jackets’ go-ahead touchdown. In the final minute, Powell-Lee was again in the right spot, this time to recover a fumble caused by linebacker Charlie Thomas to secure the victory.

At North Carolina, with the then-No. 13 Tar Heels driving in Jackets territory trying to add to their 17-14 lead in the third quarter, Brooks intercepted Drake Maye, ending the star quarterback’s streak of 195 consecutive passes without an interception. (The cross-trained Brooks was playing nickel back on that play with Wallace out of the game.) Taking possession, the Jackets drove for a touchdown to take a 21-17 lead that they held for their biggest win of the season.

“It’s always competition, no matter who’s where,” Brooks said. “First and foremost, the brotherhood that we have in that (group) – regardless of who’s playing and who’s at what position – is very strong. Obviously, it’s good to have ‘J’ King back. I think we’ll be on a rotational system. Whoever’s on the field, whatever works best for the two or three guys that’s out there, that’s what we’re going to roll with.”

As a group, the Tech secondary was one of the Jackets’ stronger units. Aided by an improved pass rush, Tech’s 11 interceptions were the team’s most since 2018 (12), and the 17/11 touchdown/interception ratio was the most favorable for Tech since 2016 (14/11). Also, the defensive passing efficiency rating (126.0) was the best since 2016 (125.5).

“I think we had a lot of success last season, and the goal, obviously, is to put that in the past and bring that into this spring and this season,” Brooks said. “Communication, as well – everybody understands their assignment. So just continuing to build on that and not letting our success from last year be our detriment.”

The outlook at cornerback is not quite as clear. A first-time full-time starter last season, Myles Sims is back, although four-year starter Zamari Walton transferred to Ole Miss. Thacker and secondary coach Travares Tillman do have options with experience as backups, notably Kenan Johnson and Kenyatta Watson. After playing a handful of defensive snaps as a freshman, Rodney Shelley is getting a look at the slot cornerback position.

The position group goes into its second year under the leadership of Tillman, whose development of players such as Walton and Brooks was noticeable.

“We have gone through quite a bit of adversity,” Thacker said of himself and Tillman. “Through the course of the season, you build trust through those moments. You build trust or distrust and fortunately for us, in our relationships, which has been longstanding, we’ve had the opportunity to build trust in those last eight games (when Key was interim head coach).”

- Tight ends: Seeking larger role in passing game

- Quarterbacks: Toughness a defining trait under center

- Offensive line: Experience, continuity could bolster unit

- Wide receivers: New group in play at the position

- Running backs: New faces in the backfield

- Defensive line: Tech fortified by experience on defensive line

- Linebackers: Two transfers could be the answers to a big question