Less chaos, more execution at Georgia Tech spring practice

Georgia Tech defensive end Kevin Harris at the team's first spring practice on March 30, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech defensive end Kevin Harris at the team's first spring practice on March 30, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

On a brisk but sunny Saturday morning at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the typical urgency and energy of Georgia Tech spring practice was the same as ever. Coaches shouted orders. Players ran on and off the field. In their first day with full pads, the Yellow Jackets cracked into each other, creating highlight plays on offense and defense.

What was different was the constant motion and fervor that particularly defined coach Geoff Collins’ first spring practice in 2019, when he placed an emphasis on speeding through as many practice snaps as possible to accelerate learning.

“In the past, we were entertaining to watch for our practice on Saturday,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said.

On Saturday, in front of a scattering of fans and media for the first open practice of the spring, the tempo was dialed back.

“I hate to use the word ‘calmness’ because it wasn’t a calm practice,” Thacker said. “But just the ability to teach and coach more and go at a slower pace, and not everything being so chaotic. Guys are executing at a much higher level on both sides of the football.”

Thacker’s assessment was in keeping with Collins’ priority to pay attention to detail, particularly in the area of penalties. Tech ranked 119th in FBS last season in penalty yardage (74.9 yards per game).

On Saturday, as has been the case thus far, officials were at practice to throw flags when the Jackets were in 11-on-11 situations.

“We’re holding (players) accountable in post-practice meetings as a defensive unit,” Thacker said, “and we’re showing them what that does to a drive in those situations.”

The Tech defense would seem to have the capacity to be markedly better than it had been in Collins’ first two seasons, both with Thacker running the defense. The Jackets ranked 11th in the ACC in defensive yards-per-play in 2019 (5.83) and ninth in 2020 (5.86). Tech was 13th in defensive third-down conversion rate two years ago (45.2%) and 14th last season (46.7%).

Last year’s defensive scoring average (36.8 points per game) was the highest in team history (not counting the 1894 team, which gave up 45.3 points per game in three games). The previous standard was set by the 2019 defense (32.4).

The defense that Thacker is arranging for the 2021 season looks more promising. Tech has eight defenders who started at least five games last season returning, plus a number of key backups as well as a 2019 starter who missed last season with an injury, defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza.

Further, Tech brought in these transfers: linebacker Ayinde Eley (Maryland), defensive end Kevin Harris (Alabama), defensive tackle Makius Scott (South Carolina) and cornerback Kenyatta Watson (Texas). Also, defensive end Keion White (Old Dominion) is expected to arrive after he graduates this semester. All fit the size/length model that Collins has set for the roster.

At Saturday’s practice, Eley showed burst as he swallowed up ground between him and a quarterback who had left the pocket. Harris showed explosiveness off the line of scrimmage to penetrate the backfield.

Thacker said that Eley, at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, has a “borderline NFL prototype” body for the position. He said that his size and reach give him and the defense a margin for error as he defends in open space. Thacker said also that Eley, a grad transfer, has “excellent movement traits” and “has learned the defense at a faster rate than arguably anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Harris, Thacker said, “may be the twitchiest dude on the roster,” referring to his evident abundance of fast-twitch muscles.

Thacker wasn’t ready to write the two into the starting lineup, “but what they’ve done, in terms of quality of depth makes us look like a different defense,” he said. “I’m very pleased with the way that they’ve entered.”

Thacker said that the defense is “getting back to our identity” that Collins has developed over his time as a defensive coordinator and then head coach.

To that end, Thacker’s stress on getting the little things right, like not committing offside penalties or avoiding pass-interference or personal foul-penalties.

With the defensive roster and depth looking increasingly like what Collins, Thacker and general manager Patrick Suddes envision, the time has arrived for the Jackets’ defense to produce.

“Ultimately, we’ve got to get off the field on third down,” linebacker Quez Jackson said. “That kind of killed us a lot last year. Just getting better at every phase on defense. We’ve got to walk the talk now. Talk the walk, walk the talk, however you say it, we’ve just got to do it now. Enough talking, we’ve got to do it.”

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