Heading into the 2011 football season, only five starters are returning to the defense from the 2010 squad. All four starters from last year’s secondary will be replaced by new faces in the second year of defensive coordinator Al Groh’s 3-4 defensive scheme.
While the team will miss the experience of the 107 combined starts lost from last year’s secondary, the team is still expecting improvement defending the passing game with the young talent present.
The team feels optimistic about the secondary’s ability to make plays, along with the depth at the position. The competition for a starting job in the secondary went on throughout spring and summer practice and their work ethic resulted in praise from Head Coach Paul Johnson. Seven of the eight players in the secondary’s two-deep were recruited by Johnson.
Not everything about the secondary will be completely new, as the four players have 20 starts combined. Of those 20 starts, 15 come from senior safety Rashaad Reid. The majority of Reid’s starts came early in his career as a freshman where he learned alongside former Tech standouts such as Morgan Burnett, Mario Butler and Jerrard Tarrant. Three starts came last season from sophomore safety Isaiah Johnson, who also earned his starts as a true freshman.
Reid has been thrust into a leadership role, along with redshirt senior cornerback Michael Peterson, a key backup and prominent special teams member. Both players have been attributed for keeping up the intensity during camp while helping the younger players step into their roles.
“Mike Peterson and Rashaad Reid are some leaders in the secondary. Those older guys have stepped up and set a good example for us young guys to follow suit and make us compete more in practice like a brotherhood,” said sophomore cornerback Louis Young.
At the cornerback position junior Rod Sweeting will be starting alongside Young. Sweeting saw significant playing time during the 2010 season, recording 38 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery as a backup. Young’s lone interception during that season came during a Thursday night game at then-No. 22 Virginia Tech.
Young played in 12 games as a freshman, primarily as a special teams player as well as a backup corner. Young posted 10 tackles as a reserve with a career-high three tackles against Middle Tennessee State last season.
Both players were recruited heavily out of high school and have the speed that the coaching staff is looking for. Their speed will be key in order to close the gap on the one-on-one matchups they will encounter during some of the new blitz schemes that Groh will implement for the first time in 2011.
All four players are confident in their athletic ability, but growing pains are expected early in the season. Tech will have time to build the players experience in the first three games of the season, games the Jackets should be favored in.
“I feel like it’s going to a be a process. We want to just build off each game. Each game is going to be a stepping stone and we just want to learn from everything. I feel like we’re feeling confident heading into the season,” Young said.
Athletic ability is not limited to the starters though, with redshirt sophomore Jemea Thomas coming in as a versatile player who can play at both cornerback and safety. He could play an important role in nickel packages but will be expected to contribute as a rover type of player.
While the team has some depth in the two deep, the secondary took a hard hit when cornerback Ryan Ayers elected to transfer from Tech to Liberty University. Ayers was a strong candidate as a backup to either Young or Sweeting as a redshirt freshman.
The youth of the defense seems like a concern initially on paper, but Tech’s strength on the defensive line may be enough to pick up the inexperienced secondary until they have a better grasp of their role in the scheme.
With all three starters returning on the line, their ability to pressure the opposing team in the backfield could result in more miscues by opposing offenses. Those miscues will be key in getting moreß interceptions, something Tech’s teams have struggled with the past two seasons.
“We have a lot of leadership on the line, a lot of guys with years under their belt. They have that experience, I think it’s going to be a good experience this year,” Young said.
Young’s speed has been a hot topic coming from coaches and teammates alike, and his ability to close the gap could be useful. It would not be surprising to see Young baiting a few quarterbacks into throwing the ball deep so that he can make a play.
The youth at cornerback may cause Tech fans anxiety at first, but the experience they will gain in 2011 will translate onto the field in the subsequent two or three seasons. With strong role players at other positions, the secondary hopes to gain confidence early in the season and eventually become one of the strongest points of the entire team.
The Jackets open up the 2011 season on Sept. 1 against Western Carolina at 7:30 PM in Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Jackets will look to start strong after a disappointing 6-7 finish in 2010.