However, pressure frequently required blitz help, which left the Jackets’ back end vulnerable when the blitzes were picked up or the ball was thrown before the blitz reached its target, as often happened. Or, in another common shortcoming, quarterbacks took advantage of gaps in the pocket either to scramble for positive gains or to roll away from pressure and keep plays alive. Or, when Tech did rush four, quarterbacks could wait for targets to open, putting pressure on the secondary. Against opposing offenses, the Jackets’ 22/6 touchdown/interception ratio was the poorest in the conference.
Going forward, as nearly all of Thacker’s defense comes back, an improved pass rush is a reasonable expectation. The defensive line is a particularly young group, and freshman defensive ends Jared Ivey and Kyle Kennard showed flashes as edge defenders. Thacker will receive a particularly intriguing transfer in defensive end Keion White, who tied for 10th in FBS in tackles for loss at Old Dominion in 2019 with 19.
A more effective pass rush in turn would help the secondary, which did not perform as well as it could have, in part because it often had to track receivers for extended durations. The starting secondary will return intact. Cornerback Tre Swilling and safety Tariq Carpenter will be back for their fourth seasons as starters.
Near the season’s end, Tech’s defense did hold Duke and N.C. State under 100 rushing yards, the second and third times the Jackets achieved that standard with Collins. Linebackers David Curry and Quez Jackson were particularly instrumental as both finished their seasons on an upswing, Curry in his final games as a Jacket. It helped Tech average 4.4 yards per opponent rush in league games, which is a decent rate and improvement on 2019 (5.0).
However, not unlike the challenges with the pass rush, Tech’s defensive line was too often easily dislodged off the line, opening lanes for running backs for big gains. Before and after the Duke and N.C. State efforts, Boston College ran for 264 yards, Notre Dame 227 and Pittsburgh 317 – in a game in which the Jackets were playing on short rest while the Panthers were coming off an open week.
Again, with so many players returning, it’s reasonable to expect progress, particularly as the team can train another offseason with strength coach Lewis Caralla. While returning defensive tackle Ja’Quon Griffin is an asset with his quickness in the middle, there’s a reason why Collins places such a high value on heft, such as two incoming defensive tackles – high-school signee Zeek Biggers (6-foot-6, 325 pounds) and transfer Makius Scott (6-4, 300). An offseason in the weight room surely will help Ivey and Kennard, as will the expected return of defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen and defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza from season-ending injuries.
Thacker will have to develop a replacement for Curry, who led the team with 84 tackles and tackles for loss with nine while offering superior leadership. Aside from Jackson, returnees are short on experience, which makes the graduate transfer of linebacker Ayinde Eley (11 career starts at Maryland) especially valuable.
The secondary will be called on for better play in 2021 after not performing to standards this season. In that group, nickel back Wesley Walker and safety Derrik Allen were among the more improved players who could see their roles grow.
Perhaps the one area where Thacker’s unit performed well was in the creation and recovery of fumbles. The Jackets recovered 12 fumbles, second most in FBS. Two of the defense’s most memorable plays of the season were fumble recoveries for touchdowns – cornerback Zamari Walton’s 93-yard return against Notre Dame (forced by safety Juanyeh Thomas) and Domineck’s strip-sack and fumble recovery in the end zone against Duke.
Broadly, tackling – namely wrapping up and taking the proper angles – also needs to be better. It was better in the Duke and N.C. State games, but lagged again against Pitt.
An overriding issue or challenge with Tech’s defense is that, as the Jackets go into the offseason, the unit doesn’t have a clear difference maker as the offense does with quarterback Jeff Sims or running back Jahmyr Gibbs, a player who can be counted on to change the game in Tech’s favor with singular plays. The closest might be Domineck.
The Jackets have a slew of experience in players such as Thomas, Swilling, Carpenter, Griffin, Walton and nickel backs Kaleb Oliver and Charlie Thomas. It will be incumbent upon Collins, Thacker and the staff and the players themselves to develop into consistent playmakers.
And it’s possible that there may be an immediate star among the transfers or high-school signees, namely White. Two transfers who were highly rated out of Grayson High – cornerback Kenyatta Watson (Texas) and defensive end Kevin Harris (Alabama) – are others.
But, as the Jackets try to move upward, there’s work to do.