Where Georgia Tech defense needs help going into 2021

December 10, 2020 Atlanta - Pittsburgh's running back Vincent Davis (22) is brought down by Georgia Tech's defensive back Jaytlin Askew (center) and Georgia Tech's defensive back Zamari Walton (21) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, December 10, 2020. Pittsburgh won 34-20 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
December 10, 2020 Atlanta - Pittsburgh's running back Vincent Davis (22) is brought down by Georgia Tech's defensive back Jaytlin Askew (center) and Georgia Tech's defensive back Zamari Walton (21) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, December 10, 2020. Pittsburgh won 34-20 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Ultimately this season, the bottom line was not a tidy one for Georgia Tech’s defense.

The scoring defense average of 36.8 points per game was the highest in team history (not counting the 45.3 points per game allowed by the 1894 team, which played three games). It broke the mark set by the 2019 defense, at 32.4 points per game. Even taking out the Yellow Jackets’ 73-7 bludgeoning at the hands of Clemson, the average would still be 32.8 points per game, higher than the 2019 average.

If not for the work of All-American punter Pressley Harvin, it’s likely the numbers would have been even worse. There are reasons that are mitigating, to varying degrees. Tech missed a number of key players for multiple games with injuries or COVID-related absences. Scoring was up across the ACC. After turnovers by the offense, the Jackets often had to defend short fields. But, the shortcomings of the defense bear the brunt.

There was progress, but there’s much work to be done by coach Geoff Collins, defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker and the players as the offseason begins.

It should be noted that the pass rush improved from 2019 and over the season, as did most facets. In ACC games, the Jackets averaged one sack for every 16.6 pass attempts, a vast improvement on the 2019 rate (one per 24.8 pass attempts), but still not close to an adequate rate. Praise is due defensive end Jordan Domineck, whose effort and physical development contributed to a noteworthy season (8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles).

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.

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