Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Preview 2008 - Defense
2008 CFN Georgia Tech Preview
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2008 Georgia Tech
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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.
Vance Walker, 8.5
Interceptions: Morgan Burnett, 3
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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