Four of the five starters from the secondary who helped produce those statistics are back this season, along with numerous backups and veterans.
“We talk about it every day, not just being one of the best units in the conference, but being one of the best units in the country,” safety Jaylon King said Wednesday after Tech’s 14th practice of the preseason. “We try to go out there and practice like that every day. We try to go in there with that mindset because if you’re not going out there trying to be the best, then why go out there anyway?”
Defensive backs coach Travares Tillman, a former team captain and All-ACC defensive back for the Jackets in the late 1990s, has a quality group led by safety LaMiles Brooks. Brooks had three picks last season, the most for a Tech player in a single season since Lance Austin and Lawrence Austin each had three in 2016, and he was a third-team All-ACC selection. Pro Football Focus also rated Brooks the fifth-best returning safety nationally (second in the league behind Miami’s Kamren Kinchens).
Brooks could be flanked at free safety by either King or Clayton Powell-Lee. Powell-Lee played in all 12 games as a freshman last year and was an ACC Rookie of the Year candidate. King started the first five games of the season before a broken leg at Pitt sidelined him indefinitely.
King is back healthy and intent on further strengthening Tech’s secondary.
“Competition is high. We go in every day competing against each other, but at the same time we’re also helping each other,” King said. “We’re able to see each other’s weaknesses and strengths. Whenever we see one of each other’s weaknesses we try to help them give them tips to make it a strength as well. If someone goes down we can’t have a drop-off. That’s why it’s good to have to competition because we’re all trying to achieve the same goal, which is to win.”
Tillman does have decisions to make when it comes to his starting cornerbacks.
Zamari Walton transferred to Ole Miss, leaving one side of the field vacant opposite 2022 starter Myles Sims. Kenan Johnson, Kenyatta Watson II, Rodney Shelley and Ahmari Harvey are a few of the candidates to run with the first-team defense.
“It’s very open, just like every other position back there,” Tillman said. “Sometimes injuries happen and you have to wait things out to kind of see. You don’t want to count someone out just because they’re down for a minute. That competition will continue throughout camp and probably into game week. Who knows? I’m going to continue to evaluate those guys, and when it’s time to suit up for that first game, the best corner will be out there.”
K.J. Wallace will lead at Tech’s fifth secondary spot, the nickel position. Tillman said Wallace and Kansas State transfer Omar Daniels have been the two standouts at that spot. Daniels, from Colquitt County High, played 10 games for Kansas State in 2022.
Tech plays only three top-15 passing offenses from a year ago in Wake Forest (9th), North Carolina (11th) and Georgia (15th). That break in the schedule coupled with a wealth of returning talent and production makes 2023 ripe to be a banner year for the Tech secondary.
“It’s football, it’s an art, so you kind of got to work on it continuously. You always want to encompass to work on everything,” Wallace said. “I feel like right now we’re really trying to solidify what our identity is as a back end. I think we’ve been having some very good practices. I think right now we just kind of need to just keep putting it together, really. I don’t think there’s any one specific thing we need to work on, but just kind of just continuing to jell together as a back end and being better each day.”