Georgia Tech secondary plots redemption for poor play in 2020

November 28, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's defensive back Tariq Carpenter (2) runs for a touchdown after he intercepted the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. Georgia Tech won 56-33 over the Duke. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
November 28, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's defensive back Tariq Carpenter (2) runs for a touchdown after he intercepted the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. Georgia Tech won 56-33 over the Duke. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

What was expected to be a strength for Georgia Tech last season – the veteran-filled secondary – was not. Cornerback Tre Swilling expects that to change.

“We have a lot of experience in playing from me, Zamari (Walton), Tariq (Carpenter), Juanyeh (Thomas), specifically,” Swilling said Tuesday. “We’ve all started and played the last two or three years or more. I expect us to look like that. I expect us to look like we’ve been out there starting and playing, and we understand.”

Despite the fact that those four defensive backs – Swilling and Walton at cornerback, Carpenter and Thomas at the safety spots – were all returning starters last year, the Yellow Jackets did not always look like it in the secondary last season.

While statistics can be a crude measurement tool – an interception or incomplete pass can be as much the product of an effective pass rush as solid secondary play, and likewise a touchdown pass or completion can be the result of a slow pass rush or an ill-advised play call – the numbers don’t paint a rosy picture for Tech’s secondary play in 2020.

Opponents had a 22/6 touchdown pass/interception ratio, poorest in the ACC. Tech had one pass defended (a breakup or an interception) for every 9.1 passes by the opposition, the second highest rate in the ACC. (Louisville had the lowest rate at 6.1.)

“To be straight honest, you just look on paper, we didn’t play well at all,” Carpenter said. “We were all disappointed just with the way that we played. We know all those things that have been said – how bad we played. We’re kind of taking that personal. We come into work every day.

“I just know in the fall we’re just not going to be the same secondary. We’re going to look completely different.”

Safeties coach Nathan Burton said that, while he said his group “did an OK job” fitting into the run defense, safeties were betrayed by misreading pass plays for run plays and watching too much instead of keeping their vision focused on their keys. He said narrowing players’ focus before the snap and knowing the opposition better – tendencies, moves off the line of scrimmage – will help.

In an effort to reduce confusion and mental clutter, the cornerbacks and safeties have worked together more frequently – in meetings and on the practice field – during the spring than last season. It was borne out of a desire for the players and coaches to all be on the same wavelength.

Last week, coach Geoff Collins spoke to the disconnect, saying that it was frustrating that “we were a collection of corners sometimes. We were a collection of safeties sometimes. And not always a defensive back unit, a secondary unit.”

By meeting together, “(the cornerbacks) get to hear the safety calls, as we are looking at it,” Burton said. “Because our safeties are going to make the calls in the defense. So there becomes a trust factor that gets built when Tre hears Tariq make the correct call during the meeting, and it’s correct.”

While the two groups aren’t always together for meetings – Burton said that coaches might identify several plays that the safeties and cornerbacks need to go over together, but meet separately for everything else – the more they’re together, the mutual understanding increases.

“We’re able to kind of be on a more even understanding of what everybody’s doing and how we’re doing it, and the calls they’re making and when and why,” cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich said. “I just think that builds a much bigger trust factor when it’s not just me telling them, ‘Hey, coach Burton’s telling them this. This is what you’re going to hear from Juanyeh.’ They hear it from Juanyeh. So I think that just makes them feel more comfortable because it’s also how Juanyeh’s going to say it when we get out there on the field and they come out in a formation.”

Popovich, who said that social-distancing measures were a factor in the two units not meeting together more, said that the shortage of trust didn’t necessarily result in coverage breakdowns, but more prevented players from being comfortable with play calls.

“There’s just a comfort level, and you’re able to relax and play the play,” Popovich said. “Like, I can now focus on what I need to focus on pre-snap. The cycle of the snap, in terms of getting the call – what’s the formation recognition, what’s my assignment responsibility, what’s my technique?”

Swilling said that the time together eliminates confusion over calls.

“So that allows us to play fast,” Swilling said. “It allows us to have trust in the guys in the meeting room asking those questions, getting those things figured out, and to figure out ... who needs to put more effort into that side of things.”

The other aspect of this melding of the groups has been coaches’ encouragement for the safeties and cornerbacks to spend time together away from football, “because we all believe, in college football, that the relationship, the trust isn’t just built from on-field communication,” Burton said. “It’s, can I trust you outside of the building, outside of the program?”

To the degree that the communication challenges affected play last season, Tech has the pieces for a standout secondary, if the issues can be addressed. Carpenter and Thomas are two of the more athletic players on the team and have a total of 53 starts between them. Safety Derrik Allen has a skill set, Burton said, that is “unbelievable.”

Swilling and Walton (49 combined starts) are being pushed by a number of athletic backups, such as Tobias Oliver, Myles Sims, Miles Brooks, Kenan Johnson and Kenyatta Watson. Wesley Walker is emerging as a nickel back, making the fourth most tackles on the team last season.

“We’ve got, shoot, seven, eight corners that we feel really, really good about going out there and throwing them into a game,” Popovich said.

The push to improve from last year’s 3-7 record will take better play from across the roster. But, given the pool of talent and experience in the secondary, it’s critical that that group raise its form, as Carpenter vowed.

“We’ve still got a ways to go, but we’re excited about the kind of cohesiveness that they’re starting to build together and the direction we’re heading,” Popovich said.

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