This season, the Tech football team will have to endure multiple changes if they want to repeat as ACC Champions. The team will have a new B-back, a new starting wide receiver, a new safety and a new defensive end. Even Tech’s jerseys will be a little bit different from last year’s.
However, none of those changes compare to the magnitude of switching from the 4-3 defensive scheme they used last season to the new 3-4 defense they will implement this season.
The new scheme requires every defensive player to change something about his game, and the coaches hope that those changes will help the team improve on defense this season.
The first component of the new 3-4 defense is the use of three defensive lineman instead of the traditional four employed by most defenses around the country.
Last season, Tech wanted to use two defensive ends to rush the passer and two defensive tackles to stop the run. This season, the Tech coaching staff will ask all three of its defensive lineman to clog up running lanes and take on multiple blockers.
“[The defensive line] did a lot of work with our hands… making sure we use our hands against blockers and using our hands to get off blocks. That will be the key to winning games,” said redshirt junior defensive end Jason Peters.
The change will require the defensive lineman to be much bigger and more physically aggressive as they might be asked to take on two or even three offensive lineman.
“[The 3-4] is mainly about changing our alignments and changing our responsibilities. It gives [the defensive line] a lot of chances to get into space and make plays, but it really requires [the defensive line] to be physical and sound in our assignments,” Peters said.
Peters will start the season at one of the defensive end spots after making eleven tackles and recovering one fumble last season. At 6-foot-4-inch and 271 pounds, Peters possesses the ideal size of a 3-4 defensive end.
Sophomore Izaan Cross will start at the other defensive end spot this season as coaches were impressed with his 10 tackles as a true freshman last season. At 294 pounds, Cross is bigger than Peters but not necessarily slower. Cross has the speed to be Tech’s primary pass rusher from the defensive end position.
Starting in between Cross and Peters this season will be redshirt junior nose tackle Logan Walls. Walls started last season at defensive tackle so he should be used to playing on the defensive line in big games. Walls might have to sit out the opener versus South Carolina State, so expect to see a lot of redshirt sophomore nose tackle T.J. Barnes.
The second component of the 3-4 defense is the use of four linebackers instead of three.
The change means that the two outside linebackers will become the defense’s primary pass rushers and the two middle linebackers will be asked to back up the defensive line and help out against the run. The linebackers are the most crucial part of the 3-4 defense as they have more responsibilities.
“You have to move in space. You’re moving in coverages, but it’s also the same [as the 4-3] in that you’re rushing the passer and you’re playing on the line to stop the run,” said redshirt senior outside linebacker Anthony Egbuniwe.
Lastly, the 3-4 defense uses two cornerbacks to stop the pass and cover receivers and two safeties to cover the middle of the field and make tackles in the secondary.
Starting at the other outside linebacker spot opposite Egbuniwe is junior Steven Sylvester. Sylvester started eight games for the Jackets last season and had 40 tackles including three sacks.
The Jackets are loaded with talent at inside linebacker this season, and are led by senior Brad Jefferson. Jefferson started all 14 games last season and recorded 95 tackles. Redshirt junior Kyle Jackson earned the starting job at the other middle linebacker even though he missed all of last season due to a foot injury. However, Jackson had a sensational freshman season in 2008, recording 61 tackles.
Although the assignments may be the same for the secondary in the 3-4 as they were in the 4-3, one thing that has changed in the secondary is that Tech will be starting a true freshman as one of the safeties.
Freshman safety Isaiah Johnson will see his first collegiate playing time when the Jackets take on South Carolina State on Saturday Sept. 4. Johnson comes from the same high school as former Tech star Calvin Johnson (Sandy Creek) and will wear the same number as former Tech player Morgan Burnett (No. 1).
However, Johnson does not feel the pressure from his predecessors.
“I don’t feel the pressure. It’s something to think about, but I don’t let stuff like that get to me. People talk and say that I have to live up to Morgan but that’s just talk,” Johnson said.
Johnson has much more to worry about than living up to expectations.
“The hardest thing [about college football] is remembering all the plays,” Johnson said.
Starting alongside Johnson this season is redshirt sophomore safety Cooper Taylor. Taylor missed most of last season due to medical reasons, but if his freshman season is of any indication, the Jackets should be fine at safety. Taylor had 68 tackles in 2008 and was named as an honorable mention Freshmen All-America by College Football News.
Tech will start redshirt senior Dominique Reese at left cornerback this season even though he has seen most of his playing time in college at safety. Reese was riddled with injuries last season, but he should be a big contributor this season.
Senior cornerback Mario Butler will start across the field from Reese, at right corner. Butler has been a staple of Tech’s secondary the past two season, starting all 27 games over that span.
The coaching staff believes that the new defense will hold teams to fewer points and force more turnovers, but the players say that the change is a work in progress.
“We have a long way to go, but we are going to work hard every week because every week the opponents are going to get better… but it’s going to be a challenge,” Peters said.
“It’s a transition. It is the first year that we are running this defense, so every day that we come out to practice we are learning. That’s going to be going on throughout the whole season,” Egbuniwe said.