The cornerback position for Georgia Tech is very strong in its front line players but you couldn't tell that from watching spring practice. Of the three starter-quality players at this position only one of them participated in spring drills and it was the youngest and most inexperienced of the three. With Reuben Houston and Dennis Davis missing time to recover from injuries, it was an opportunity for the others on the depth chart to show what they could do. Despite losing two players in the off-season (Jonathan Cox to graduation and Venice Gilliam transferring) there are still good numbers at this position for GT. But does the good quantity translate into good quality? I'll discuss that more below.
It's tough to get a good read on just how good our corners will be without two of our top three performers. Reuben Houston started at corner last year opposite Jonathan Cox. He was our top performing cornerback with 70 tackles and 3 interceptions. He also led the team in pass breakups with 8. Despite missing spring, there is little doubt that he'll man one side of the field at the corner position.
Dennis Davis, who also missed time in spring, was not assured of a starting spot and his chances of playing opposite Reuben could have been hurt by him missing spring. Davis is the senior with good game experience and nice results. Last year in a backup role he had 23 tackles, 2 interceptions for 62 yards returned, and 4 pass breakups. He certainly would have been the starter to begin spring practice. Davis has a nice 6'0" frame for a corner and track quality speed. There is little doubt he'll be a valuable piece to our defense and likely return kickoffs as well. He will be on the field a good bit but he has a serious challenger for the starting role.
Davis' challenger and the third of what I call our starter-quality players is true sophomore Kenny Scott. Scott is one of the rising stars in the ACC. His talent and ability cannot be ignored. His upside is above what Davis or even Houston can do. Although Dennis has some nice measurables, Kenny is slightly taller and not far behind in speed. You really can't go wrong with either Kenny or Dennis at the starting corner spot but I think Scott has a bit more of a natural feel for the position. He has better instinct and closes on the ball better. Kenny is able to give a receiver more room than other corners because he's able to glide back to him once the ball is in the air. He has started to become more confident in his abilities and will lay off a receiver more now just to dare the quarterback to throw it his way.
So with three super options at corner, we're looking pretty solid but what about the guys behind the top line of defense. Personally I'm not very comfortable yet with what I've seen from the other backups at corner and I think the coaching staff would agree with me. I think that was proven this spring when Houston and Davis were unable to go, who did they call on the start opposite Kenny Scott? No not Fleuridor, Usher, Harris or Williams. They moved backup free safety Nathan Burton over to fill that role. And as discussed in the safety review, Burton struggled to fill that role. He'll go back to his more natural position as a safety but I just don't think it says much for where the other guys at corner stand to this point. Let's take a look at our other options should we need to go there this season.
Probably the best spring performer from the rest of the group was I-Perfection Harris. He's been a frustrating case for GT fans since we beat out Penn State for his services several years ago. He's a fluid runner and is fast but just hadn't mastered the position very well up until spring. His slight frame has also proven to be a bit of an issue. But this spring he showed some improvement. He had some good days and made some nice plays. It looks as though he might be able to come in and hold his spot down for short periods at a time. But he is still just too inconsistent and I would not feel comfortable about our chances if he had to step in right now and play big minutes. I hope he can continue to improve this fall knowing he showed some glimpses in spring or else it might be time to start getting pushed by some true freshmen.
Brian Fleuridor is another player that had some ups and downs. He's pretty good at tackling but just hasn't established himself as a guy that can hold his own at corner just yet. Brian is a still a very valuable piece of our special teams and I still see that as being his greatest source of contribution this upcoming season.
Finesse Usher is a good athlete who was given a scholarship since the end of last season and was moved to corner from wide receiver. He didn't see much time in spring and is still learning the position. I think he's probably the best athlete of the other backups and has to most potential to be a contributor down the road. His time will come eventually but for now he'll have to earn his way up the depth chart and meanwhile try to turn some heads on special teams.
Finally there's Sam Williams. I don't know any other way to sugarcoat it but he really had what I would call a tough spring. More times than anything, when I'd look up at a good play from the offense I'd see who was defending it and too many times I saw Sammy guarding the receiver. He's listed as the same height as some of the other corners but to me he looks a little shorter. He did come away with a couple of interceptions but was just victimized too many times. Maybe there was a good reason for his bad spring but he'd need to show a lot of improvement in fall before I'd feel comfortable with him on the field defending our endzone.
With the uncertainty beyond Houston, Scott & Davis, it is not unreasonable to think that a good performing true freshman couldn't earn some playing time this season. Jamal Lewis is a very promising prospect who could be just that player. He has a tall lanky frame but looks strong and can run pretty well too. He was the heart and soul of his HS defense and made most of the tackles on his team from the safety position. They didn't throw at him much in HS because they didn't have to. Jonesboro High had an awful season and teams could simply run all over them. Lewis showed that he was a fearless tackler and those are some skills he brings with him to GT. The cornerback role may take some adjusting to but from what I've seen of his film; he looks like a guy that could be a success there in the long run. And with a lack of someone stepping up to backup the starters, he could get a look earlier than expected. The other possibility at corner is that Patrick Clark is a guy that could end up there as well. Clark is much smaller but has great footwork and I image he'd stick to a receiver like a shadow. He's coming in as a receiver himself but it will be interesting to see just how long he stays there. He's a nifty and flashy player that will be fun to watch. With swivel hips like Jonathan Smith, he could be a future highlight reel on either side of the ball. Personally I want to see him pick off some balls and juke out the offensive players trying to tackle him. I think he could be a big play guy on the defense.
I think the present and future looks bright at cornerback for Georgia Tech. We have three players who we can currently lean on, some backups still working on becoming contributors and a couple of promising incoming freshmen. With the good reviews I also gave to the safety position, we should have a very solid defensive backfield in 2004.