“Guys are working together; we're doing a lot of stuff off the field just to keep building that chemistry and just getting to know each other."
- Georgia Tech cornerback Zamari Walton
On the other hand, the secondary as a group wasn’t that effective. Miscommunication was common, with big plays the result. Tech ranked last in FBS in defensive passing efficiency, and its 28/3 touchdown/interception ratio was highest among power-conference teams. At season’s end, coach Geoff Collins dismissed cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich and safeties coach Nathan Burton, replacing them with secondary coach Travares Tillman with the hope that having one coach oversee the entire secondary instead of two would unify play.
Speaking last week at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Walton said he has witnessed the desired change.
“We’ve got a new defensive backs coach, so you can just feel the energy in the (group),” Walton said. “Guys are working together; we’re doing a lot of stuff off the field just to keep building that chemistry and just getting to know each other.”
To Walton, the bond within the unit was not what it could have been last season.
“I definitely think the chemistry with the backs was way off,” he said. “We didn’t have that chemistry like we wanted. And it could have been there, but, going through adversity, I really feel like after that Pitt game, it just kind of fell off a little bit, which was noticeable.”
Tech played Pitt in the fifth game of the season, one week after the Yellow Jackets’ upset of then-No. 21 North Carolina. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, on his way to leading the Panthers to the ACC championship and being named a Heisman Trophy finalist, picked Tech apart, completing 23 of 36 passes for 389 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 52-21 Tech loss.
Including that game, over the Jackets’ final eight games, the opposing quarterbacks completed 67% of their passes, averaged 11.1 yards per attempt and had a 23/1 touchdown/interception ratio.
“I felt that it was just kind of going sideways,” Walton said. “But, at that point, it was just out of our control. Those are things that we can’t really go back on. We have to move forward, and I felt like, in that back room, we didn’t do that.”
A statement from Collins in Charlotte about this year’s defense suggested that chemistry was indeed an issue with that unit last season.
“The biggest piece is the communication piece,” he said. “We’ve got really good players, and they’re committed to being a closer group, having trust and confidence and communication.”
Walton is the only returning starter. He figures to be flanked by safeties Jaylon King and Derrik Allen and cornerback Myles Sims. Other returnees include LaMiles Brooks, Sirad Bryant, Kaleb Edwards, Jalen Huff, Kenan Johnson and Kenyatta Watson. The group is flush with new talent, including five transfers – Ahmari Harvey and Eric Reed from Auburn, Khari Gee and K.J. Wallace from Notre Dame and Kenny Bennett from Maryland – and three freshmen – Jaylin Marshall, Clayton Powell-Lee and Rodney Shelley. In a group full of newcomers, Walton’s status as a fifth-year player (he is a junior in eligibility) and returning starter has lifted him into a new role.
“The leadership role is pretty cool,” he said. “I’m fine with that.”
Walton also has been receptive to Tillman, a Tech team captain in 1999 who went on to play seven seasons in the NFL.
“That’s my guy. I’m actually really close with him,” Walton said. “He’s about business. Obviously, everybody knows he played seven years in the NFL, so it’s really good having a guy that played that long in the NFL be able to coach you and give you some of his knowledge. But he’s hard on us, and that’s what we need. But off the field, he’s a really good guy.”
With a refresh in coaches and teammates, Walton is ready for another attempt. When Tech begins its preseason Aug. 5, what the Jackets have lost in experience, they perhaps may gain in solidarity.
“It’s just really meshing and being together,” Walton said. “When we go against adversity, just keep standing up and play together, play together as one unit.”