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.
Current Depth Chart:
CB: Rashaad Reid, Jerrard Tarrant, DeRon Jasper/Correy Earls, Carl Miles
CB: Mario Butler, Michael Peterson, Martin Frierson, Alex Walker, Roderick Sweeting
SS: Morgan Burnett, Jon Lockhart, Brandon Leslie
FS: Dominique Reese, Kamaron Riley, Lance Richardson
Other who could fill the depth chart: Cooper Taylor, Mario Edwards
(both moved to the WOLF position in the latest chart and will be featured in the LB report)
Review, Preview, and Predictions:
One reason for optimism for the 2009 version of the Georgia Tech defense is that, like on offense, one of the best players in the conference (or in the country for that matter) resides. Having a great system and great coaching is "great" but running it with talents like Morgan Burnett gives fans confidence that all of the pieces could be in place for a nice unit. As important, in a physical sport like football, is to not only have the front line talent but good depth as well. Now that piece is starting to come together as well. The cornerback position features several guys who will rotate in. Safety only seems top heavy when inspecting the depth chart because two of its valuable members are at other positions and could return if and when needed. When talking year-over-year depth comparisons, Coach Johnson agrees, "I think it's a lot better this year. It should be night and day especially at some key positions... I think the secondary has a lot more depth."
I'll start with safety since any conversation regarding GT and defensive backs should always begin with Morgan. Not only are his skills apparent but his leadership is as well. Coach Johnson said about Burnett, "Morgan Burnett is a leader. Generally the players that are good and work hard are the leaders. I don't think you can look at one position grouping. I think Morgan would stand out." Some don't want to even utter the thought but I'll write it – I hope we do get to see him for two more seasons. He's a top talent though and will probably be grouped with guys like Eric Berry of Tennessee as the cream of the crop for NFL safety prospects. My first prediction is one I don't want to give, but I think Morgan will move on after this season.
Okay so we know Morgan is special, how about the other starter? Dominique Reese is under the radar for non-GT fans and even some Tech fans probably don't appreciate the impact he can have. Reese began to get on a roll last year, as mentioned above in the pre-spring report, with picks in three consecutive games. A concussion knocked him off his roll but now he's 100% and will get back to the level he was approaching last season. One clue that Coach Johnson is comfortable with what Reese can bring is that he moved both Cooper Taylor & Mario Edwards, the next ones in line at safety, to the Wolf position. Should there be injury to either Burnett or Reese, you can be sure one of those two will return, but for now they are at that hybrid LB/S position. I'm so convinced of Dominique's ability that I predict he'll actually pass Burnett this year for the team lead in interceptions. Morgan had seven last year to Nique's three but I think opposing teams will make every effort to avoid number one. Reese will be the beneficiary and edge out Burnett.
Beyond the starters, the true backups at safety may be at another position, so that suggests that some work needs to be done by the ones listed as backups. Some pre-spring questions were brought up before about how the redshirt freshmen or guys moving over from the offense would perform. One who actually fit both criteria is the backup who did make some good strides in the coaches' eyes this spring. Jon Lockhart redshirted as an A-back and moved to defensive back for spring. He had a good camp and the coaches seem to really like his potential as a contributor this year at safety. Another good camp this fall and he could make the coaches think twice about shifting Taylor or Edwards when the need arises. Kamaron Riley and Brandon Leslie showed flashes in spring but have more work to do in order to move up in the plans. Coach Johnson summed up the situation by saying this about the current backups, "Some days they were okay and some days they weren't. They are like everybody else. There's flexibility back there too. Cooper [Taylor] has played back there and Mario [Edwards] has played back there so there is some flexibility." That's hardly an endorsement for the current backups.
When Coach Paul Johnson said, "There's going to be competition in the secondary," I think he was referring more to the corners versus the safeties. Two events created this competition at cornerback - Jahi Word-Daniels graduating and the return of Jerrard Tarrant. Among the three competing for the two starting spots, there isn't a wide in their standing even after spring. Tarrant did not supplant Mario Butler as he had prior to his legal issues of a year ago, but he did show why he's a valuable and important piece of the secondary. While Tarrant missed last season Butler and Rashaad Reid earned some meaningful minutes and crucial game experience that Jerrard missed out on. Reid and Butler are starters but all three will see a lot of playing time in a situation that will be more of a rotation that we'll see at safety. Michael Peterson is another who gained some on-the-job training last season and continued to prove valuable this spring. He'll also be in the mix. Beyond those four, playing time will be harder to come by for the likes of DeRon Jasper, Martin Frierson, former receiver Correy Earls, and walk-on Alex Walker.
Last season the secondary got to showcase a couple of true freshmen in Taylor and Reid. Both were instrumental to some of the success of the secondary last season. Don't expect to see a repeat of that this year though. The depth is better and so is the talent level, so there won't be much of a need to play freshmen this year. "We played freshmen in the secondary," said Coach Johnson about Reid and Taylor. "We had to out of necessity."
Guys like Roderick Sweeting, Carl Miles and Lance Richardson have a lot of others to jump in order to crack the rotation due to the different circumstances of this season. If anyone in the group can, I'm told Sweeting has that ability to get into the mix. I don't think he'll play though if the current two-deep stays relatively healthy. Lance Richardson is probably the best put-together of the group but he's also unlikely to be in the safety rotation. It would not surprise me though if the coaches found a way to get the 6'2", 205-pound safety on the field for special teams.
Finally there's Jemea Thomas, who I predict will remain at A-back, though Coach Johnson gave just enough room in his comments to fuel the Jemea-to-safety debate. "I think it's going to be tough for Jemea," said Johnson. "If he's going to have a chance to play at A-back we'll have to evaluate him for a couple of weeks. If he's going to move to safety we have other guys who've gone through camp, so I'm not ready to pencil him in ahead of guys who we've recruited to play there. We recruited him as an athlete. We'll see after we get out there. If he's not going to be in the mix at A-back then yeah, he might be over there."
Overall I love the group of corners that Tech has assembled. They will be a solid and deep group. The safeties are very talented but seemingly thin. I'm not worried there though since Taylor and Edwards lurk in the Wolf position as insurance. We're not forced to use true freshmen so that means we can develop the new guys or if one cracks the rotation then it signals a truly special player. I'll be happy with either storyline there.