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2008 Georgia Tech Preview - Defense
Georgia Tech DE Michael Johnson
Georgia Tech DE Michael Johnson
Posted Apr 23, 2008 2008 Preview - Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Defense

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Georgia Tech Preview | 2008 Georgia Tech Offense
- 2008 Georgia Tech Defense |
2008 Georgia Tech Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Georgia Tech Preview |
2006 CFN Georgia Tech Preview 

What you need to know: With all of the attention on the transitioning offense, it’s easy to forget that the defense is facing significant turnover as well. Coordinator Jon Tenuta is a sizable loss, as are DE Darrell Robertson, LB Philip Wheeler, and S Jamal Lewis. New coordinator Dave Wommack can take solace in Vance Walker and Darryl Richard, who’ll form one of the nation’s most disruptive tandems of defensive tackles. They’ll need to be extra ornery to help offset a secondary that was gutted by graduation. The Jackets do boast a pair of budding stars in DB Morgan Burnett and DE Michael Johnson. Johnson is a phenomenal all-around athlete, who’ll get more room to roam around in Wommack’s system, improving his draft grade on a steady basis.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Morgan Burnett, 57
Sacks: Vance Walker, 8.5
Interceptions: Morgan Burnett, 3

Star of the defense: Senior DT Vance Walker
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LB Brad Jefferson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore ROV Morgan Burnett
Best pro prospect: Senior DE Michael Johnson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Walker, 2) Johnson, 3) Burnett
Strength of the defense: The front four, getting to the quarterback
Weakness of the defense: The back seven, pass defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Welcome to what will be the strength of the 2008 Yellow Jackets. Even after parting with productive ends Adamm Oliver and Darrell Robertson, Tech won’t skip a beat up front. Stepping into the spotlight on the outside will be senior Michael Johnson and sophomore Derrick Morgan. The vacancies open the door for Johnson to become one this year’s single biggest breakout stars nationally. Above and below the neck, he is the prototype at the position by NFL standards. Long and extremely athletic, he uses every inch of his 6-7, 247-pound frame to bolt past helpless tackles and obstruct passing lanes for quarterbacks. Despite just two career starts, he’s collected 10 sacks, a number he’s capable of passing this year alone.     

Morgan was one of the steals of the 2007 recruiting class, a 6-4, 270-pounder who has the strong base to defend the run, yet is quick enough to collapse the pocket as a pass rusher. As much as Tech would have liked redshirting him, he couldn’t be kept off the field, earning a letter and a spot in a veteran rotation. Once things thin out in 2009, he’ll be the leading man of the unit.

On the inside will be a couple of the league’s best run stuffers, seniors Vance Walker and Darryl Richard. The 6-2, 293-pound Walker was a revelation in his first season as a starter, parlaying 45 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles into a spot on the All-ACC first team. It’s his explosive first step that’s often too much for opposing blockers to handle.

While Richard hasn’t quite reached Walker’s level of individual achievement, he isn’t far behind.  A veteran of 30 starts, he posted career numbers a year, including 30 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks. A 6-4, 290-pound bull, he’s capable of running through linemen and, like Walker, has the moves to get backfield pressure.        

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Elris Anyaibe has played in 35 games for the Yellow Jackets, making him an outstanding option off the bench at tackle. At 6-3 and 280 pounds, he’s quicker than he is powerful, using lateral speed and good feet to disrupt plays before they can develop.

At defensive end, 6-3, 248-pound sophomore Robert Hall and 6-4, 272-pound redshirt freshman Jason Peters will both get a chance to make plays from the second unit. Hall was poised to earn his second letter last year before an injury limited him to just three games. More of a situational pass rusher because of his size, he could become a third down specialist when Johnson or Morgan need a blow.

Like Morgan, Peters is a load on the outside who belongs on the field for all four downs and could eventually move inside. Very fast for his size, he holds up well at the point of attack and uses his hands to shed blockers en route to the backfield.

Watch Out For ... Johnson to erupt into a candidate for national awards. He’ll be physically superior to every blocker who gets in his path, prompting the obligatory, yet accurate, comparisons to former Florida great Jevon Kearse. If all goes right, he won’t last more than a few picks in next April’s draft.
Strength: Pass rush. When even the tackles move like ends, it’s going to be a very long season for Tech’s opponents. If Johnson and Morgan are as good as expected from the outside, there aren’t many offensive lines in the country that’ll keep this group from causing mayhem.
Weakness: Proven depth. It’s splitting hairs, but other than Anyaibe, the line is short on upperclassmen or players with much relevant game experience.
Outlook: Even after losing Robertson and Oliver, Georgia Tech will boast one of the most talented defensive lines in the ACC, if not the country.  The unit needs to be every bit as good as expected in order to take some pressure off a fledgling back seven. The evolution of Johnson into one of the game’s elite pass rushers is a storyline that will be one of the highlights of the ACC season. 
Rating: 9.5


Projected Starters: Tech will be moving on at linebacker without standouts Gary Guyton and Philip Wheeler, last year’s top two tacklers. The lone returning starter is junior Shane Bowen, but he’s coming off shoulder surgery and is in a dogfight for the starting job at strongside. As a 10-game starter, he was overshadowed by his teammates, producing just 34 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks. More of a cerebral defender than an athletic dynamo, he’s built like a safety at 6-1 and 218 pounds.

At weakside, the Yellow Jackets believe they’ve got their next all-star linebacker in 6-3, 231-pound sophomore Anthony Barnes. He plays with the speed and the ball skills of a former safety, but has bulked up since arriving, and has blossomed into a terrific run defender. He showed flashes of his upside as a playmaker, making 29 tackles, six tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks, getting more confident as the season progressed.

Taking over on the inside is 6-2, 227-pound sophomore Brad Jefferson, an exceptionally strong player who had 10 tackles in a 12-game rookie debut. He shadowed Wheeler throughout the year, getting a crash course on the playbook and how to read defenses. Hungry for success, he’s poised to make a quantum leap in his second season. 

Projected Top Reserves: Redshirt freshman Kyle Jackson is making sure Bowen will have to work overtime to retain his starting job at strongside. In fact, the two are in a dead heat heading into the summer. At an obvious disadvantage in experience, the 6-0, 226-pounder is in this race because of his superior range and quick retention of his assignments.

Although 6-1, 207-pound senior Tony Clark hasn’t played many important minutes in Atlanta, he does bring a steady, veteran influence to the second team. He’ll back up Barnes and again be a key contributor on special teams.   

Watch Out For ...
Barnes and Jefferson to quickly become rising stars and productive members of the defense. Both are capable of becoming the next in a growing line of terrific Tech linebackers.  Now all they need are the reps that’ll come with starting jobs.
Strength: The future. It’s possible the Yellow Jackets will start three athletic, feisty underclassmen this fall. Enjoy it now, ACC, because by 2009, Barnes, Jefferson, and Jackson will form one of the league’s toughest linebacker corps.
Weakness: Inexperience. As good as the kids are, they’re still kids, which will mean the occasional blown assignments and missed tackles. Bowen is the only member of this group who’s logged significant minutes with the program.
Outlook: Georgia Tech will be just fine at linebacker…next season. Although Barnes and Jefferson have high ceilings, a drop-off from long-time starters, such as Wheeler and Guyton, is inevitable.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: Although just two years removed from high school, the secondary will be built around sophomore rover Morgan Burnett, a 6-1, 198-pounder capable of playing all four positions. A tremendous all-around athlete, he laid a solid foundation with 57 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, and seven pass break ups. He’s a playmaker with a knack for being around the ball.

Joining Burnett at safety is 5-11, 178-pound Dominique Reese, a sophomore who has the cover skills and speed to also play cornerback.  e played in all 13 games a year ago, mostly on special teams, finishing the season with 16 tackles and his first letter.

The Jackets’ top cornerback is 6-0, 194-pound senior Jahi Word-Daniels, a third-year starter and an all-league candidate.   terrific open field tackler who breaks well on the ball, he had a career-high 56 tackles in 2007, adding 2.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and a team-high eight pass break ups.     

It’s at the other cornerback spot that things become very dicey. If giving the job to redshirt freshman Jerrard Tarrant wasn’t going to be scary enough, the projected starter was charged with rape in June and suspended from the team. If he can’t return, sophomore Mario Butler will slide into the lineup. At 6-1 and 181 pounds, he has ideal size to go along with enough athletic ability to handle the promotion.  s a freshman, he earned a letter playing on special teams.    

Projected Top Reserves
: Behind Reese at free safety is 6-1, 190-pound junior Jake Blackwood, a two-time letterwinner and veteran of 17 games. While he lacks Reese’s agility and cover skills, he brings a tougher, more physical presence to the defensive backfield.

If Tarrant is done for the year, 5-11, 185-pound redshirt freshman Michael Peterson will be asked to take off the training wheels a year earlier than expected. A coveted recruit with good hips, he used his first year to add weight and get a better handle on the defensive playbook.  

Watch Out For ...
Butler to get picked on relentlessly. Given a choice, opposing quarterbacks would much prefer going after a projected backup with limited experience than Daniels, a veteran and the team’s best pass defender. 
Strength: Burnett. Sure, he’s still somewhat raw, but he also has a special set of skills that’ll help gloss over Tech’s inadequacies every now and again. He has star qualities, which should begin to shine through.
Weakness: The corner opposite Word-Daniels. It was going to be a sore spot even when Tarrant was eligible. Without him, the Yellow Jackets become perilously thin at the cornerback position.
Outlook: Burnett is a rising star. Word-Daniels is solid. After those two, however, Tech is in big trouble. The program lost several veterans following 2007 and won’t make a snap recovery with the talent returning this fall.
Rating: 6.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: After resting easy with Travis Bell and Durant Brooks as the kicking specialists, Tech is going to have some sleepless nights as it adapts to life after two All-ACC performers. Sophomore Scott Blair is actually bucking to replace both players and pull double-duty as the placekicker and punter. While he has no track record at either position with the Yellow Jackets, he did handle kickoffs as a freshman, flashing good leg strength and hang time. 

Blair’s chief competition at kicker comes from junior Mohamed Yahiaoui, who saved a season of eligibility by redshirting last year. Similar to Blair, he has a big leg, using it as Tech’s kickoff specialist in 2006. And like Blair, his inexperience is cause for concern.

Vying for the punting job are sophomore Kevin Crosby and redshirt freshman Chandler Anderson, walk-ons who’ve yet to see any game action.

Junior Tyler Evans was a dependable, sure-handed punt returner who doesn’t break the big play, averaging less than 10 yards in each the last two seasons.  Unfortunately, he underwent shoulder surgery and is expected to miss the season.

Sophomore Jonathan Dwyer shared kick return duties with Jamaal Evans, but with his role in the running game about to expand, it’s unknown if he’ll remain on special teams. If not, sophomore Correy Earls is another viable option.  
Watch Out For ... Blair. Unless he completely implodes in August, he’ll play an integral role on the special teams unit. Replacing Bell will be difficult. Replacing Bell and Brooks is impossible.
Strength: Coverage units. Tech was fantastic last year, finishing No. 3 nationally covering kickoffs and No. 37 on punts.  Brooks had something to do with the latter, but it was Blair who handled all of the kickoffs in 2007, and he’s back for another year.
Weakness: Uncertainty at punter. Folks around Atlanta got spoiled by Brooks, who averaged 45 yards, placed more than half of his punts inside the 20, and was instrumental in Tech finishing seventh nationally in net punting. Good luck replicating that kind of productivity.
Outlook: The drop-off from the last few years is unavoidable. The job of coach Jeff Monken is to make sure that it’s not precipitous and costly.  It’ll be up to Blair to solidify multiple positions in his first season of extensive action.
Rating: 6.5