CB: Rashaad Reid, Michael Peterson, DeRon Jasper, Alex Walker, Jon Lockhart (staying at A-Back?), Carl Miles
CB: Mario Butler, Jerrard Tarrant, Martin Frierson, Kamaron Riley, Correy Earls, Roderick Sweeting
SS: Morgan Burnett, Mario Edwards, Brandon Leslie
FS: Dominique Reese, Cooper Taylor, Lance Richardson
Defensive backs are typically pretty interchangeable as far as who plays corner and who plays safety. Not all players are that way but coaches can usually move players around when needed due to injuries or finding a way to get the best players on the field at the same time. As the numbers stand now though, it appears Tech has a ton of corners and few safeties. Tech is losing a corner and a safety through graduation and gaining two corners due to position changes from offense and another who sat out last season due to legal troubles. Even before you consider incoming freshmen, the numbers don't look too bad in terms of defensive backs. There is even a walk-on who could be in the mix this spring as well. So the needs are not immediate in terms of head count. What the coaches would be interested in though is upping the talent level with players they identify as must-haves.
Before digging into the returning players for spring and beyond, let's take a closer look at the two guys whose time in the program is up. Starting corner Jahi Word-Daniels, a 2009 East-West Shrine Game Invitee, is moving on and attempting a career in the NFL. He could be a late day two draftee, possibly in the seventh round or so. His hamstring injury from last year could have brought down his outlook. His performance at Georgia Tech pro day returned some average results in 40 times (4.59 and 4.64 seconds) and vertical leap (38 inches). Both metrics would put him at the back end of the corners who participated in the NFL draft combine. Combine 40's for corners ranged from 4.46 to 4.52. Combine verticals for corners ranged from 45.0 to 38.0 inches. So, he probably won't be an early pick but I still suspect his name will be called at some point in the seven round draft.
The hamstring injury Jahi suffered in the Clemson game caused him to be shut down for the rest of the season, which was a serious blow to the Tech defense. He was very valuable to the stability of the defensive backs group. Tech lost two of the first three games Jahi missed – Virginia and North Carolina –as the team had to regroup and find a new mix that worked. He finished the shortened seven game season with 24 tackles and just one interception.
Jahi never redshirted, playing in eight games as a true freshman. He finished his career with 25 games started while playing in a total of 42 games. He became a starter during his sophomore season and held the job down until his injury last season. Word-Daniels finished his career with 124 tackles and a modest five interceptions. Jahi was a steady player who battled nagging injuries at times. When healthy he was a solid performer who could be counted on to man his side of the field.
The other player graduating is Jake Blackwood, who actually has another year of eligibility remaining but will move on anyway. Jake played in all 13 games last season, mostly on special teams. He did record 13 tackles including a half-sack against Jacksonville State. He was honored as an ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District III selection.
Coach Chan Gailey was criticized for recruiting the son of former Miami Dolphin Glenn Blackwood for the 2005 class. Blackwood, an excellent student, was looking at Ivy League schools before Tech stepped in as his first and only offer. Many fans felt the lack of interest from other schools showed he did not warrant an offer from Tech. Jake finished his career playing in 30 games, recording 23 tackles. One of the biggest issues with his development was that he was never really able to put on much weight to his frame. He came in at 160 pounds and leaves probably somewhere in the 180's, which is light by safety standards.
Spring Practice Report:
Though Jahi Word-Daniels' contributions will be missed at corner, there are plenty of bodies to fill the gap. The talent level behind Jahi was pretty good as well. Another thing to keep in mind is that several young guys received valuable experience last season. Some of the experience came as a result of Jahi's injury but the defensive backs saw a lot of game time too because Tech started five defensive backs in four different games – all games won by the Yellow Jackets (Gardner-Webb, Clemson, Florida State, and Miami) and were often in the nickel package.
The offense received a lot of praise this year thanks to some super talents, but the defense had perhaps the most talented player on the field most games. Not Michael Johnson or any of the other defensive linemen but defensive back Morgan Burnett. Morgan led the team in tackles, interceptions and pass breakups and it wasn't even close in the first two categories. Burnett led the team in tackles with 93. The next most was 69 – from another defensive back I'll get to down the page. Morgan had seven interceptions (tied for most nationally) for 95 yards, including a pick returned for touchdown against Georgia. He was named Second Team All-ACC and Second Team All-America. He's a strong candidate to be pre-season All-America in 2009. At 10 career picks, Morgan is in view of Tech's all-time leader Willie Clay with 16.
Needless to say, Burnett is the leader of the defensive backfield. He also has the versatility to play either corner or safety, though he has found a nice home at safety. When recruited to Tech, Burnett was the icing on the cake for Tech's best recruiting class in memory. He was the second to last guy to commit and it was a big coup for the Yellow Jackets. He not only had offers from anywhere he wanted, he is also the brother of former Georgia player Cap Burnett. Though Georgia fans probably said they didn't want him anyway at the time – they sure wish they had him now. He'll be Tech's starting strong safety.
The guy with the next most tackles on the team last year is another safety Cooper Taylor. Tech's doing so well at the position right now that he might not even start. Right now Dominique Reese is slated to be starting at free safety. Reese had three interceptions on the season and, like Burnett, he returned one for a touchdown against Clemson. Reese was on a roll with one pick in three consecutive games when he suffered a concussion, causing him to miss the Florida State game. When he's healthy, he's an impact player. His importance is apparent since he's able to move back ahead of the team's number two tackler when he's available.
Reese was an interesting recruiting story. He was an option quarterback out of high school. Before last season, fans were even wondering out loud if Coach Johnson would try him out there in 2009. He signed in the same class as Laurence Marius – the presupposed star of that duo. Both Marius and Reese signed in November and within a few weeks of each other. Once "Poppy" committed, Tech coaches were done with corners. They ceased pursuing other corners because they were quite happy with the two they had landed. Fans could understand why the 4-star Marius would please the coaches but Reese was a real unknown. As we know now, Marius had trouble adjusting to the college game and is now out of football while Reese, the good athlete known more in high school for his leadership, effort, and will, is a rising star.
Now back to Cooper Taylor, one of the unsung heroes of the 2009 season for GT. Not only did he start games when needed as a true freshman, rack up 69 tackles (second only to Burnett), and have one interception, he also allowed Tech to win a game they were sure to lose. Taylor was responsible for the play of the year that allowed GT to beat FSU for the first time since 1975. Trailing by three with 45 seconds to go, Florida State's Marcus Sims was heading for the end zone on second down and goal. As Sims crossed the two yard line Cooper put his helmet on the ball and it flew into the end zone where Rashaad Reid recovered it. The images of the FSU fans after the play are priceless. To relive that memory, check out the following Youtube link:
It's comforting knowing that there is a proven, talented #3 guy at safety. Tech coaches are fond of the nickel package so Cooper won't be on the bench very much. He contributes way too much to sit and the coaches also do a good job of playing good players regardless of the numbers.
The safety position is rounded out by former Virginia Tech safety Mario Edwards and redshirt freshman Brandon Leslie. Edwards, from the Atlanta area, chose VT over GT out of high school. A family situation last year allowed him to transfer back to GT with an exemption to where he did not have to sit out a year. Some had hoped for a bigger impact from Mario, but he did contribute seven tackles in 12 games though mostly on special teams.
Edwards will now compete for a spot on the 2-deep against redshirt freshman Brandon Leslie. Physically, there is much to look forward to from Leslie. He is well put-together, has good speed and has a reputation for being a physical presence. Spring will be an interesting battle between Edwards and Leslie. Brandon is intriguing since we really haven't seen his true potential yet.
There are many more unanswered questions this spring at the corner position. Who will replace Word? How will the two former offensive players perform? Does the talented redshirt freshman become a factor? How about the solid walk-on? Does Tarrant win back his starting spot he had a year ago?
The first question is actually the easiest. Since Jahi was injured halfway through the 2008 season, we know that Rashaad Reid was a capable replacement. In fact, Reid was a starter in the last two games in which Word-Daniels played. Tech had gone to a nickel formation to start both the Gardner-Webb and Clemson game and Reid was the man for that job. Rashaad started all eight games beginning with that two-game stretch – the last six as corner. As mentioned above, Reid teamed with fellow true freshman Cooper Taylor in ending the long drought against FSU when he pounced on the fumbled ball by Sims. Reid was nearly the goat when he tried to run with the ball initially and bobbled it, but he recovered the ball eventually, forever avoiding that tag.
Reid tied with Reese for second most interceptions on the team with three. He was also seventh on the team with 45 tackles. He's just about the surest bet for a starting spot at one of the corner positions.
Mario Butler will be the starter opposite Reid when spring begins, but it will be interesting to see if that holds up. He trailed Jerrard Tarrant in this battle last year following spring before legal trouble led to Tarrant sitting out the entire season. Since then, Butler started all 13 games for Tech, piling up 41 tackles (9th on the team) and one interception. Some have said he could have played better, but Butler got it together and had a good final five games. He totalled 19 tackles and 4 pass breakups in those games. So, he did show improvement from earlier in the season. And it's a good thing for him because those 13 games started alone won't assure him of starting again in 2009. He'll need to ward off some good players on the depth chart behind him.
Jerrard Tarrant, now a redshirt sophomore, has received rave reviews from practice but we still haven't as yet seen him suit up for the Yellow Jackets in an actual game. For that reason alone, he'll have to earn his way back to a starting position. His legal troubles are behind him and all that is left is to see how he adjusted to that period of his life and how he kept up with his workouts and conditioning. He'll certainly be a factor for playing time in 2009.
After those first three corners, it's anyone's guess as to who'll step up on the two-deep. Michael Peterson played in 12 games last year as a redshirt freshman and totaled 16 tackles. With Word-Daniels and Reese out for the Florida State game, he grabbed a career-high six tackles (five were solo). He's shown he can play when called upon and is a tough hard-nosed defender. Peterson was the last commit to Tech from the famed 2007 recruiting class. He made a late switch as a commit to Boston College. He'll likely start off spring as a backup to Reid.
Kamaron Riley is one of the more intriguing possibilities for a spot on the depth chart at corner, though he has the build to play any backfield position. The coaches seem to be impressed with what he did as a redshirt freshman last year and will get serious reps this spring to show what he can do. I think he's the one to watch in the battle for the two-deep.
DeRon Jasper made his first career start at nickel back following a four-tackle performance against Virginia. A shoulder injury kept him out all of last spring and it left him with a lot of work to get back up the depth chart. A full spring practice will be good for DeRon in his efforts to earn more playing time in 2009.
Martin Frierson, the lone senior in the group, missed four games last year with a knee injury. Once he was healthy he had to work his way back to even contribute on special teams. He didn't play in the next three games, so that was seven games off in the middle of last year's schedule. It was too bad because he played and contributed six tackles in the first two games of the season but essentially wasn't heard from there after. He now has many talented youngsters to deal with so his chance may have passed him by. Spring will be a good chance for the former wide receiver to show he still has hope for being a contributor on the defense.
You may have looked out on the field a few times last season and wondered who #43 was playing on defensive. Alex Walker is the culprit. He made two tackles against Mississippi State and returned an interception against Duke for 30 yards. He played in four games total. Spring will be interesting for him to see if the coaches feel like he can be a true challenger for playing time in 2009.
Finally, two players are moving to corner from the offensive side of the ball. Jon Lockhart was an a-back in his freshman season and Correy Earls moves to defense after being a former starter at wide receiver. The Lockhart move to corner has been rumored but he is still listed as an a-back officially. I guess we'll find out soon enough which it will be. He's a super athlete, posting a 41-inch vertical leap for Scout.com as a senior in high school. He has the build and athleticism to play a number of positions. It would not surprise me to see him as a corner, safety or a-back in 2009. It would appear that the corner position needs him the least right now in terms of numbers but we shall see. At this point I'm guessing he'll remain on offense thanks in part to Tarrant's return and the Earls move.
Correy Earls is definitely on defense now. What's happened to his career has been a real mystery. Earls had 14 catches for 188 yards two seasons ago and started in three of the 11 games he played in. He was passed by Tyler Melton when the new coaching staff changed up the offense. He started in five of the last six games of the season in 2008 after Melton was injured. He wasn't particularly effective though when he did play. He ended 2008 with just four catches for 41 yards and missed four games due to a hamstring injury. For a guy who was perhaps the fastest receiver in the group, his longest catch was for 16 yards – lowest high for any of the ten players who had even a single catch last season. Clearly it wasn't working well for him at receiver and now he'll see if he can make better use of his speed and talents as a defender.
But wait, there's more! Well, that's all of the likely characters for the spring battles but at least one true freshman has the hype and supposed talent to possibly enter the fray once fall begins. That will be covered in the next section.
Who GT signed:
Roderick Sweeting /p>
Home Town (High School): Locust Grove, GA (Luella High School)
Other offers included: Auburn, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio State Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Brian Jean-Marie
Scout.com Stars: *****
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 22 (CB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): 218
Rod Sweeting looked early on like he was heading to Auburn. In the end though he turned down a number of great offers and picked the Yellow Jackets. Sweeting, first team 5A all-state player, was a standout for Luella High on both offense and defense. As a receiver he scored 10 touchdowns and totaled 723 yards on 36 catches last season. On defense he had two picks and 58 tackles.
Sweeting was still a hot commodity even after he committed to Tech. "I'm still solid on [Georgia] Tech right now," Roderick Sweeting told Matt Day in October. "All of the schools that have offered me are still keeping in touch, but I'm not really interested."
GT didn't offer Rod in the early going, though he was hopeful they would. "An offer from Tech would be great," he told Matt Day back in April of last year. "I've talked to them a lot. My GPA is a 3.0, and they want me to get up to a 3.4. They told me they're really going to consider an offer. I just need to get my grades a little higher."
Eventually it all worked out and Sweeting became one of Tech's prized recruits. He has some lofty expectations to back up the hype and it's believed that he could be a factor on the depth chart as early as this fall. With all of the returning talent at the corner and safety positions, he's going to have to get off to a very fast start.
"Sweeting is another versatile signee for Georgia Tech. He has the skills to play corner or safety on the next level. He is long and has great ball skills like many at corner, but he is also a physical player and good tackler like many look for in a safety. He is not a blazer, but he is quick enough and he is also a smart player."
"A very intelligent competitor with a ton of physical upside. Has great length and plays with outstanding leverage. Always in control and does a good job driving on the ball. Ability to be physical at the LOS will improve as he gets stronger, and this will also help to improve on tackling. Understanding of the position will get him and keep him on the field."
Home Town (High School): Ware Shoals, S.C. (Ware Shoals High School)
Other offers included: Kansas State, Texas A&M, Marshall, Oregon, Toledo
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Dave Wommack
Scout.com Stars: **
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: NR (S)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Lance Richardson was a name that came totally out of left field this recruiting season. He made a visit to Tech on the weekend of January 16th and committed on the spot when offered. GT defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, as it turns out, had first contacted Richardson three weeks prior to that visit. Tech fans didn't really know much about Lance though until he announced his decision.
In an interview with Dale McDuffie after his commitment, Lance had this to say about Coach Paul Johnson:
"Coach Johnson said he really liked my film and my play and he was very impressed by how I took my academics seriously and how good my grades are. He said that was extremely impressive to him. He likes for his players to take academics seriously. He also said that he wouldn't have offered me a scholarship if he thought I couldn't come in and make an impact on the playing field as well as the classroom. Once he offered, I committed to Georgia Tech. He says if I come in and work hard, playing time will not be a problem for me."
I have recently spoken with Lance and he is very enthusiastic about being a Yellow Jacket. In addition to signing all of his correspondence with "Mr Georgia Tech," he has taken a serious approach to his off-season preparation as he prepares to make a name for himself in the college game. He told me that he weighed 196 pounds when he visited Tech in January and has already pushed his weight up to 203 from his workouts. He looks forward to working with Coach Eric Ciano when he enrolls this summer.
He would seem most likely to fit in as a safety, though Lance says the coaches have suggested he could see time as an a-back down the road possibly. Richardson appears to be yet another case of Tech coaches liking a player for his athleticism and versatility in being able to fit in at offense or defense if the first choice doesn't work.
You have to love this guy already. When Scout.com's Miller Safrit went to see Lance on National Signing Day to take pictures, they couldn't find anything with GT on it to take pictures with. So Lance found this UGA pennant to signify his allegiances.
Lance, an all-state selection in high school, also played in the North-South All-Star Game. He had 25 touchdowns and 1,129 yards of total offense in 2008. On defense he had seven picks and 82 tackles. He could be quite the sleeper pick.
Lance Richardson could be one of the biggest sleepers in the class with his ability to read and react to plays from his safety position. He may not have the incredible power that make highlights as some players, but he is one of the fastest players at his position to diagnose a play and he is more than willing to come up into the box to make a stop and has enough range to get to the sideline at the line of scrimmage to make a play as well. Shows a little more athleticism on offense than he does on defense, which shows how much more he still has left to grow.
- Highlight Video 1 - Jr. Year #2 S/WR
Home Town (High School): Weston, FL (Cypress Bay High School)
Other offers included: Kansas State, Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt, Troy, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, Florida International
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Charles Kelly
Scout.com Stars: **
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 98 (CB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Just one weekend after Richardson was a mystery visitor and commit for GT, Carl Miles did the same thing. He was under the radar until he visited GT on the weekend of January 23rd. "I was really considering Kansas State and Troy because they were the first ones interested in me and showing me love. I liked those schools a lot. So it really came down to those two and Georgia Tech," Miles told Jared Kimmel after his announcement.
Miles' high school team was very noticed in recruiting circles so that had to help getting his name out there. He had several teammates end up at other division one schools, including: Shane Gordon (Pittsburgh), Jason Douglas (Pittsburgh), Austin Gamble (Duke), and Phil Walker (Marshall).
Miles finished his senior season with 36 tackles and five interceptions.
"Carl Miles comes from well coached big-class (6A) program at Cypress Bay. He has solid intangibles with a high game IQ. Needs to add some weight, but can play zone corner relatively quickly and after some size, should be able to play more man to man. He finds the ball in the air quickly and has loose hips. Miles is not a finished product, but has enough upside to think he is a potential starter in a few years."
The one who got away:
Darren Myles Jr.
Though it wasn't really close in the end, Myles was looking at GT early on. He took five official visits and Tech didn't make that list. It was pretty clear Tech wouldn't be one of his finalists even though he made several unofficial visits to Tech's campus. Some fans held out hope until the end as other schools on his list began to fill up, but it didn't happen. Myles, who seemed to be looking for a "factory" school all along, ended up with Tennessee. That matched the sense I got from him the first time I met him on campus.
Others with offers along the way from GT include: Branden Smith (Georgia), Corey Addison (South Carolina), Prince Kent (Miami), Daytawion Lowe (Oklahoma State), Shayne Skov (Stanford), Jawanza Starling (USC)
In a way, this class of defensive backs reminds me of the Marius-Reese class. There is the one 4-star stud, Sweeting in this case, and two guys who came along later in the game – like a couple of Reeses. Sweeting will have all of the high expectations placed upon him because he's the kid who could have gone just about anywhere in the southeast. By all accounts, Richardson and Miles were good high school players who appear to be good athletes.
One criticism would be that the coaches were pretty particular about taking commits late in the recruiting season because we know they wanted to hold some scholarships off until next season – which is going to be a small class for sure. Why would they take on two late lesser known commodities at defensive back positions when the numbers are decent there and that they are looking good with some pretty stellar d-backs for the 2010 class? Guys like Ryan Ayers, Barry Bostic, and Isaiah Johnson to name a few were already giving Tech some strong signals.
The reason for that is, like Reese, they saw something they liked on film and were comfortable enough with their evaluations to want to bring them in for an official visit. Both Richardson and Miles had a few decent schools looking at them. Lance, who compiled some nice high school stats, fits the bill as an offensive or defensive possibility like the coaches seem to favor. Carl comes from a highly visible 6-A high school program in Florida's Broward County that regularly turns out division one talent. Carl's team traveled to Katy High in Texas to play a game this year on ESPN.
Overall, I think it is a very interesting defensive backs class. I wouldn't be surprised if the entire group redshirted but long-term I like the versatility and athleticism of the group. If the 2010 class at DB goes as well as it appears it might then Tech should have a program well stocked at these positions for the foreseeable future.
Thanks to Chad Simmons, Burke Hayes, Geoff Vogt, Matt Day, Miller Safrit, Dale McDuffie, Jared Kimmel, Rod Mackenzie and Kamden Robb for contributions to this article!