Georgia Tech’s Andrew Thacker expects defense to continue upward trajectory

Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker coaches during the first day of spring practice for Georgia Tech football at Alexander Rose Bowl Field in Atlanta, GA., on Thursday, February 24, 2022. (Photo Jenn Finch)

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Jenn Finch

Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker coaches during the first day of spring practice for Georgia Tech football at Alexander Rose Bowl Field in Atlanta, GA., on Thursday, February 24, 2022. (Photo Jenn Finch)

The early returns on Andrew Thacker’s defense were not great through three-plus seasons with Georgia Tech. But then the Yellow Jackets turned a bit of a corner in 2022. And for Thacker, that corner may have been turned Nov. 5 in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Tech trailed 27-16 at Virginia Tech as the clocked ticked under 11 minutes. The Hokies were knocking at the door and about to ice the game with a first-down call at the Georgia Tech 10-yard line.

But on a run up the middle, D’Quan Douse punched the football loose. Makius Scott fell on it. The Jackets went on to score 12 consecutive points from there and won 28-27.

“My message to those guys last year, at moments we had an identity.” Thacker said after Thursday’s practice, the third of the preseason for Tech. “The things that came out of our mouth (during a timeout before the aforementioned play) were the things that we valued. It does not matter what just happened, it does not matter the context of the game, it does not matter the adversity we’ve been through. Just go play the next play, do your job, focus on the things that you can control in those moments.

“It wasn’t some Knute Rockne coach speech, it was the things that the guys were saying.”

Tech had its best season by far, statistically, under Thacker in ‘22. It improved its national standing in scoring defense (28.4 points per game) and total defense (401.6 yards per game), finished inside the top 50 in passing yards allowed (212.4 per game) and in red-zone defense (80.4%) and ranked 14th nationally with 24 takeaways.

In the team’s final eight games, with Brent Key as interim coach, some of those numbers got even a little bit better, with the Jackets allowing two fewer points and five fewer yards per outing compared with the season totals. Tech also was plus-7 in turnover margin during that span.

And while, yes, those 2022 numbers won’t win the Jackets a conference title, they are a step in the right direction as Tech continues to make a name for itself.

“We’ve got a whole new year with a bunch of new faces,” Thacker said. “Now it’s our job to re-create our own identity. ‘You guys take ownership of what you say that you value, but here are some thing that have some backbone to it, this is what it looks like,’ now let’s go fight for that.”

Thacker has plenty of veterans returning for his defensive unit this season. LaMiles Brooks, Clayton Powell-Lee, K.J. Wallace, Kenan Johnson, Kenyatta Watson, Myles Sims, Ahmari Harvey and Jaylon King are among the notables back in the secondary. Tech’s defensive line lost Keion White to the NFL, but Scott, Douse, Kyle Kennard, Zeek Biggers, Sylvain Yondjouen, Kevin Harris and Josh Robinson give Tech virtually a two-deep front.

The linebacker position is the main query for Thacker and his staff. They brought in Andre White from Texas A&M, Paul Maola from Idaho and Braelen Oliver from Minnesota to play alongside junior Trenilyas Tatum.

“(Linebackers coach) Kevin Sherrer is doing a phenomenal job with that position group. Really taking ownership there,” Thacker said. “Outside of (Tatum), we have competition and depth. Worse-case scenario, we feel like we have competition and depth.

“The sample size of what (White, Oliver and Maola) can and can’t do is small here at Georgia Tech. All of those guys have played real downs at their respective universities. We have seen what it looks like when they make plays. We value that.”

Thacker, a Cartersville native and Furman graduate who worked with Key at Central Florida in 2008 and 2009, had been a defensive coordinator at only one previous stop before arriving at Tech. His 2017 Temple team allowed 25.8 points per game that season.

Six years later he’ll need to do one of his best coaching jobs yet given that the Jackets face five offenses this season – Ole Miss, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Clemson and Georgia – that finished inside the top 30 nationally in scoring in 2022.

That’s a tough draw, but becoming tough is part of the equation, Thacker said.

“We talk about these culture things and identity things, and now we get to see what that really looks like,” Thacker said. “Toughness is like the most-overused word in defensive football, and being physical, but I told the guys, ‘To actually be tough you have to have adversity in your way to actually do some things.’

“Without adversity toughness does not exist. Those are the things we’re trying to test and improve right now.”