2012 Georgia Tech Preview – Defense
Georgia Tech LB Jeremiah Attaochu
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Georgia Tech is looking for more big plays out of its offense in 2012. It's looking for the same from Al Groh's D as well. The coordinator's kids allowed at least 30 points in each of last year's final four games, three of which were losses. At the heart of the problem was an inability to generate much pressure after a Sept. 24 outburst versus North Carolina, getting to the quarterback just 10 times in the final nine games. Groh, sensing he still has major holes to fill along the three-man line, will consider the use of more blitzes in the fall. Since confidence in the new ends and nose tackle is low, the Yellow Jackets are likely to ask more from the back eight, the strength of the unit. The linebackers are going to be terrific, an athletic collection of defenders that flies to the ball quickly. While Quayshawn Nealy is a guided missile from the inside, outside ‘backers Jeremiah Attaochu and Brandon Watts possess the closing speed to wreak havoc off the edge. Even after tanking late in the year, the defensive backfield displays loads of potential as well. Four starters return, headed by next-level CB Rod Sweeting. If Groh can milk just a little more production from his defensive linemen, look out. His D is very close to being very good in 2012.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Jeremiah Attaochu
Tackles: Isaiah Johnson, 78
Sacks: Jeremiah Attaochu, 6
Interceptions: Isaiah Johnson, Rod Sweeting, Jemea Thomas, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Izaan Cross
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Quayshawn Nealy
Best pro prospect: Attaochu
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Attaochu, 2) Senior CB Rod Sweeting, 3) Junior S Isaiah Johnson
Strength of the defense: Girth up front, the linebackers, experience in the secondary
Weakness of the defense: The pass rush, consistency in pass defense, third-down stops, red-zone stops
The Yellow Jackets have a little tweaking to do up front, where a pair of starters have exhausted their eligibility. The lone returning regular will be DE Izaan Cross. The 6-4, 292-pound senior has had a solid offseason that's seen him trim down to the best shape of his college career. His 28 career starts rank first among all returning players, but he'll be asked to produce far better than last year's 32 tackles, one stop for loss and zero sacks. While he has a great mover, and is strong at the point of attack, Cross needs to start turning more of his pressures into stops for minus yards.
The program boasts a trio of juniors, 6-4, 270-pound Euclid Cummings, 6-3, 264-pound Chris Crenshaw and 6-6-264-pound Emmanuel Dieke, vying for playing time at the opposite end. For his size, Cummings has uncommon closing speed and quickness. After cutting his teeth with 22 tackles off the bench, he could be set to break out in 2012. Crenshaw actually has starting experience, opening Tech's wins over Maryland and Duke. He finished the year with 10 tackles and a sack. The first end off the bench in 2011 was Dieke, an impressive physical specimen who collected 20 tackles and the first two sacks of his career.
The defense is turning nose tackle over to senior T.J. Barnes, a potential force on the inside. At 6-7 and 347 pounds, he's the biggest athlete in Atlanta, even after trimming a few bad pounds in the offseason. He's not the kind of player who'll tally big numbers, making just 11 tackles a year ago, getting judged instead by his ability to tie up multiple blockers in order to free up quicker teammates around him.
Watch Out For … one of the seniors to deliver that long-awaited breakout season. Cross and Barnes just might have a future on Sundays, but the clock is ticking. Blessed with tremendous size and sky-high expectations, neither lineman has been able to hit the high note yet. However, the presence of pro scouts in Atlanta has a penchant for bringing out the best in fourth-year players.
Strength: Girth. The Yellow Jackets have the requisite size and muscle needed to employ a three-man front. The starters average more than 280 pounds, and Barnes is one of the most physically imposing players in the conference. There'll be absolutely no reason for this unit to get shoved around or pushed back a few yards off the line.
Weakness: Getting penetration. Despite all of the muscle in the trenches, Tech still had trouble establishing the line of scrimmage for a second straight year. Not only has the defense yielded 4.5 yards a carry in back-to-back seasons, but not a single lineman produced more than two sacks in 2011.
Outlook: Coordinator Al Groh has got to find a way to pull more production out of this three-man group. They may look good on paper, but on grass they've been no better than average over the past two seasons. Since the unit isn't flush with natural pass rushers, it'll instead strive to create the kinds of traffic jams up front that free up the linebackers to wreak havoc.
Unit Rating: 6.5
The D is going to be very solid on the second level. It would have been rock-solid had it not been for a career-ending neck injury suffered in the Sun Bowl by last year's leading tackler Julian Burnett. The Yellow Jackets will now look elsewhere for leadership from the likes of junior Jeremiah Attaochu. The 6-3, 235-pounder is coming off the breakout season many expected, making 59 stops and a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Voted mostly likely to become an NFL star by his teammates, he fits the prototype of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. Attaochu is an explosive, high-energy pass rusher who will ferociously attack the pocket from whatever angle is open.
The favorite to join Attaochu on the outside is 6-2, 234-pound junior Brandon Watts. He's been a valuable reserve up to this point in his career, earning four career starts and letters in each of the last two seasons. As one of the most athletic linebackers on the two-deep, he gave the staff an option as a pass rusher, making 15 tackles and three sacks in 2011.
Bucking to displace Watts as the first outside linebacker off the bench is 6-2, 225-pound sophomore Tremayne McNair. He got a taste of action as a true freshman, appearing in seven games. A high-motor guy, he can really pack a punch.
Looking to take over for Burnett as the stalwart on the inside is sophomore Quayshawn Nealy. After exceeding expectations in his debut, he's hoping to take the next the step now that he's headed toward being a full-timer. In 2011, the 6-1, 223-pound linebacker in a safety's body started seven games, making 52 tackles, three stops for loss and two interceptions. He is a speedy playmaker, who is going to excel in coverage, or when asked to attack the pocket on the blitz.
Junior Daniel Drummond is trying to off younger contenders, like 6-3, 244-pound redshirt freshman Jabari Hunt-Days in the quest to win the final opening. Drummond is a 6-3, 248-pound converted running back who brings excellent size and a little more to the D. He started six games on this side of the ball a year ago, contributing 44 tackles.
Watch Out For … Nealy to do a pretty darn good impression of Burnett. No, he's not No. 40 yet, and may never be, but the sophomore showcases a lot of the same qualities as his predecessor. He's undersized, very quick to the ball and flashes the instincts to always be close to the action. He has the tools to lead the team in tackles this season.
Strength: Speed and range. Thanks to good recruiting, player development and shrewd relocations, such as Drummond, Georgia Tech is going to flood the second level with a collection of guided missiles at linebacker. From left to right, and from inside to outside, they excel at diagnosing plays, reacting quickly and zeroing in on their target.
Weakness: Run support. While the Jackets are terrific at creating pressure on blitzes, they need to improve at the basics of run defense. The fact that the team yielded 4.5 yards a carry in 2011 was a collaborative breakdown shared by the D-line and the linebackers. Some of those broken tackles that resulted in yards after contact last fall need to be cleaned up for the betterment of the entire defense.
Outlook: The news about Burnett sucked the air out of this group … but only temporarily. The linebackers appear capable of regrouping on the fly, with loads of help from the inside-outside combo of Nealy and Attaochu. This athletic collection of attackers will be responsible for plenty of big plays in 2012. However, it will ultimately be judged on its ability to plug running lanes, and become more of an asset for a run defense that sorely needs it.
Unit Rating: 7
Breaths are being held that the secondary can make a quantum leap forward after struggling badly in 2011, especially down the stretch. The onus for making progress will fall on the shoulders of cast of returning veterans that'll have fewer acceptable excuses this fall. Back at one of the safety spots is 6-2, 205-pound junior Isaiah Johnson, a fringe All-ACC performer last year. he finished second on the team with 78 tackles, adding three stops for loss, three picks and a couple of fumble recoveries. Beyond being just a terrific athlete, with ideal size, he's also a heady player who is about to become one of the more vocal leaders of the defensive backfield.
Now that he's recovered from an Achilles injury that cost him all of 2011, sophomore Fred Holtonhas his sights set on winning the team's other safety job. The kind of physical, hard-hitting defensive back who'll provide support against the run, he lettered and made 11 stops as a true freshman in 2010. The coaches are eager to turn the 6-1, 209-pound thumper loose this season.
The Yellow Jackets will begin the season well-stocked with experience at cornerback, a luxury for this program. Senior Rod Sweeting is coming off his best season with the program, earning All-ACC honorable mention. The veteran of 40 career games on the Flats finished his starting debut with 56 tackles, three stops for loss, three picks and a team-best 10 pass breakups. At 6-0 and 184 pounds he has good size for the position, and an opportunity to attraction the attention of pros scouts in his finale.
Tech has a good problem on the other side—two quality contenders for one corner position. Junior Louis Young started last year's first 12 games before being suspended for the Sun Bowl. He amassed 52 tackles, three stops for loss, a pick and five pass breakups. Like Sweeting, he's ideally built for the secondary, a 6-1, 201-pounder with the length to match big receivers, and the muscle to pack a punch in run defense.
Still, can 5-10, 190-pound junior Jemea Thomasbe kept off the field? He's extremely athletic, versatile and passionate in his pursuit of more playing time. A backup in 2011, with starts versus Clemson and Utah when Young was suspended, he was still able to finish the season with 50 tackles, four stops for loss, two sacks, three interceptions and six pass breakups.
Watch Out For … Thomas to make it very difficult for the staff to keep him off the field. His athleticism fits ideally at a position that requires it. He's explosive, and plays with a frenetic energy. And he's going to breathe down Young's neck from the opener until the bowl game.
Strength: Athletes. The Yellow Jackets have the measurables in the secondary, boasting big athletes who can fly all over the field to make plays. The pass rush helped, but the defensive backs did its part to ensure that the team ranked second in the ACC in both completion percentage and yards per pass attempt.
Weakness: Focus. The secondary basically lost its focus over the final four games, leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth in the offseason. The unit that ranked as high 17th nationally in pass efficiency defense around Halloween wound up No. 45 after allowing 14 touchdown passes, and picking off just three in the last month.
Outlook: The secondary is going to have off weeks, especially with Logan Thomas, Tajh Boyd, Bryn Renner and Aaron Murray on the schedule. However, it cannot suffer through the kind of streak of futility that it did at the end of last season. The Yellow Jackets have too much physical ability and experience on the back end not to be more consistent in 2012. As long as the front seven continues to apply pressure, the pass defense is poised to rank among the ACC's best this year.
Unit Rating: 7
The Jackets predictably struggled last season, the first since 2006 without kicker Scott Blair. Junior Justin Moore connected on only 11-of-17 field goal attempts, while having two blocked. The rare scholarship kicker in Atlanta, he has enough leg strength and fundamentals to turn things around this fall, which is precisely what the staff is counting on.
Junior Sean Poole returns for his third year as the punter. In two seasons, he's displayed limited leg strength, averaging just 39.3 yards in 2010 and 39.7 yards a year ago. He'll need to rely on hang time and directional boots in order to initiate a positive influence on field position.
The staff is considering a number of different options in the return game, including sophomores B.J. Bostic, Jamal Golden and Tony Zenon. Zenon earned the most special teams reps a year ago, returning nine kickoffs for an average of 22.4 yards.
Watch Out For … Moore to get his act together in 2012. He simply has too much talent to repeat last year's dismal performance as the program's placekicker. Figure the junior to still struggle from long range, but improve his overall accuracy to just around 75%.
Strength: Experience. Unlike a year ago, the Yellow Jackets aren't so green on special teams. Poole now has two seasons of experience in the vault, and Moore is no longer a wide-eyed first-timer for the program. Based on reps alone, Tech ought to be a little more consistent here than a year ago.
Weakness: The return game. Dynamic not long ago, the program's return game has disintegrated over the past two seasons. In 2010, the Yellow Jackets were 97th in the nation on both kickoffs and punts. Last fall, they stood 61st on punts and 108th on kickoffs. One of the sophomores needs to provide a jolt of energy in a hurry.
Outlook: The unit ought to be more consistent than a year ago, but by how much? A lot will depend on the performance of Moore, who could be the difference between winning and losing in a handful of games this fall. If he can kick with more consistency and accuracy, the Georgia Tech special teams will be moving in the right direction, even if it doesn't make a quantum leap.
Unit Rating: 6
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