“Absolutely,” said Brooks, who has been working at safety and nickel this preseason. “The opportunity is there. Focusing on getting better day by day and, come season time, whatever happens, happens.”
Brooks’ belief that his moment may be arriving is one that many of his Tech teammates are sharing about their own fates. Including the secondary, the Jackets’ roster is absent 16 players who started at least six games last season, along with multiple key reserves. That’s a lot of snaps to replace, particularly at running back, on the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary. Some have been all but seized – defensive end Keion White seems like a lock – but not all.
Coach Geoff Collins and his staff have restocked the roster, bringing in 17 transfers and 15 high-school signees. Returnees who toiled in past seasons as backups are trying to charge through the open door, too.
Defensive end Kevin Harris arrived last year from Alabama as a ballyhooed transfer. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker pronounced him as possibly “the twitchiest dude on the roster,” referring to his quickness and explosiveness enabled by his fast-twitch muscles.
A four-star prospect coming out of Grayson High, Harris wasn’t as productive as hoped and played 129 defensive snaps (per Pro Football Focus), the fifth most among the defensive ends. He was credited with six tackles and one quarterback hurry.
“I feel like there were a lot of things I could have improved on, those being my first couple snaps of real-game snaps,” said Harris, who did not play in any games in his lone season with the Crimson Tide. “I think I could have made some better adjustments last year, and I think this year, you’ll see a lot more production.”
One reason he has more of an opportunity is that last season’s starters at defensive end, Jordan Domineck and Jared Ivey, transferred to Arkansas and Mississippi, respectively. Harris is excited about the progress that he has made under the tutelage of defensive line coach Larry Knight, who has taken over the responsibility of coaching the defensive ends from Marco Coleman, now at Michigan State. Knight has stressed playing with quick hands and not overthinking.
“I think coach Knight being my coach, I’ll definitely be more productive,” Harris said. “I definitely love his coaching style, and I feel myself really resonating with things he coaches and the things he preaches to us.”
Knight has emphasized the wide-open competition for playing time.
“Coach Knight put it straight,” defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen said. “This is a new slate. He’s going to grade everybody during camp, he’s going to see what you do good, what you don’t do good. You’ve got to earn your spot.”
There’s playing time to be seized, too, at defensive tackle. Backup D’Quan Douse, who played behind Djimon Brooks, Ja’Quon Griffin and Mike Lockhart (all graduated or transferred), dropped his body-fat percentage from 24% to 18%, he said, as he pursues a spot on the field.
Douse, who said he feels a lot quicker and stronger, is competing with players such as returnees T.K. Chimedza, Makius Scott, Akelo Stone and Zeek Biggers, incoming freshmen Horace Lockett and K.J. Miles and transfer Daniel Carson (Western Illinois).
“I feel like starting with spring (practice), I have the chance to make a big leap, kind of show myself off a little more,” Douse said.
Certainly, the fact that so many starting spots are needing to be filled is one reason why expectations for Tech are as low as they are. Given that the Jackets won but three games with the fairly experienced roster they had last season, conventional wisdom would suggest, why should they win more with 16 of the 2021 team’s best players no longer on the roster?
A common response to that question this preseason has been that players are paying closer attention to detail and enjoying a tighter bond with one another that will carry them through rough patches. Another is the changes to the coaching staff and the infusion from the portal.
And, perhaps, the improvement generated by heightened competition among players chasing after open starting jobs could be another.
“It’s a lot of competition, so it’s a lot of guys that want to get on the field,” cornerback Kenyatta Watson said. “So if you’re not willing to do it right, somebody else is.”