This is the seventh 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.
The likely answers to perhaps the most pressing question for Georgia Tech’s defense this spring might be two transfer linebackers. One is a fifth-year transfer from Texas A&M with 40 games and 14 starts to his credit. Another is a transfer from Minnesota who has played in 38 games and logged 17 starts and has two seasons of eligibility left.
The question is, who are going to replace stalwart linebackers Ayinde Eley and Charlie Thomas? And while nothing has been determined, the answers could well be, respectively, Andre White and Braelen Oliver.
“So far, he’s done a really good job because he’s got a lot of reps under his belt, if that makes sense,” new linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer said of White. “He’s learning a new scheme, but for the most part, that’s just learning terminology, those type deals. … Braelen, it’s the same. He’s got a lot of reps under his belt. They bring leadership abilities because of their experience. What they have to do is, they just have to get their feet underneath them into a new setting, a new system and have the ability to do that.”
The performance of Eley and Thomas, both pursuing NFL careers, speaks to the value of the experience that Sherrer so clearly prizes. Both had the best seasons of their careers last year as their instincts to get to the ball were sharpened by having amassed hundreds of game snaps.
Thomas and Eley played nearly all of the snaps at linebacker last season and made 84% of all of the tackles credited to Jackets linebackers. The rate likely would have been higher had Thomas not missed more than five quarters of action because of two targeting suspensions.
Both finished in the top five in the ACC in tackles per game and earned All-ACC recognition.
“Miss those guys dearly; they had unbelievable careers here,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “It was awesome to enjoy the arc of their careers, but they’re gone.”
Further, Tech also is without the position coach who mentored them. After being switched to special-teams coordinator – a move that created room for Sherrer – Jason Semore was hired by Marshall to be its defensive coordinator. Semore was a finalist for a national linebacker coach-of-the-year award.
It was a goal for Thacker and coach Brent Key to go after players such as Oliver (from Douglas County High and the younger brother of former Tech receiver Brandon Oliver) and White and bring in the sort of leadership and experience that Eley and Thomas were taking with them.
“We have a talented (group),” Thacker said. “I want to make sure that I say that. We have a talented (group) of some young guys that have some opportunities to step up. That’s where we felt like we needed to have more competition in the (meeting) room more so than any other.”
If White and Oliver – or other linebackers – can be capable successors to Thomas and Eley, they could contribute to a defense ready to make a jump. There is experience at both the defensive line and in the secondary, and Thacker is optimistic about how different additions to the staff, such as Sherrer, could help the defense. The Jackets finished 12th in the ACC last season in both scoring and rushing defense.
It is the double edge of the transfer portal. Tech’s prospects for the season – and particular its play at linebacker – improved with the addition of White and Oliver, along with a third transfer, Austin Dean from Rutgers. However, if they do end up becoming starters, it reduces the opportunities for last season’s backups to make their mark on the field after waiting for their chance.
Thacker said that he appreciated that Oliver and White have approached their place on the team with humility.
“Although they’re older, relative to the group right now, they understand that they’ve got to earn the respect of the (group),” he said. “I feel like that’s the approach that they’ve taken right now.”
Trenilyas Tatum will make his bid for a larger role after getting time as an occasional starter and valuable backup in the past two seasons. Kyle Efford, Khatavian Franks and Tyson Meiguez are returnees eager for their shot. Incoming freshmen Nacari Ashley, Jacob Cruz and Ashton Heflin will arrive in the summer.
“Really, it’s just toughness,” Efford said in response to a question about what coaches have told players they’re looking for. “Obviously, knowing your assignment, that kind of stuff. We’re a close-knit group, we’re all competing, we all know it’s going to be a competition for the spot.”
- 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
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