Key chasing better defense in 2024, hires new DC

New Jackets defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci runs off-season drills during his time as the Duke defensive coordinator. Santucci is head coach Brent Key’s first defensive coordinator hire. // Photo courtesy of Duke Athletics

Tech’s defense is coming off a tough statistical year. The Jackets were the worst defense in the ACC and ranked 120th in the FBS in total defense, allowing just over 400 yards per game and 6.29 yards per play. At the beginning of the season, many expected the defense to be the strong suit for the team as defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker returned for his fifth season along with many veteran players; however, the team’s performance on the field revealed the defense to be a liability at times. 

They were particularly susceptible to opposing rushing attacks as the team ranked third worst in the entire FBS at stopping the run, allowing 221.3 rush yards per game.

Head coach Brent Key addressed the issue abruptly in the season, demoting Thacker following a 38-27 embarrassing loss to Bowling Green at home that saw Bowling Green run all over the Jackets’ defense. Key promoted Kevin Sherrer to the role. Sherrer finished the season as the defensive coordinator but did not earn the full-time role going forward. 

“Our performance on defense this season hasn’t met the standard that we expect at Georgia Tech. While the responsibility for that does not fall on any one individual — in fact, as the head coach, that responsibility begins with me — I do feel that a new voice and perspective from the coordinator role is necessary for us to improve,” Key stated in the initial stages of his search for a defensive coordinator. 

He found his guy in Duke’s Tyler Santucci. Santucci brings quite the resume from the Blue Devils, having the 41st-best total defense in the FBS this past year, allowing just 19.8 points per game, ranked 19th nationally. 

Santucci was also a nominee for the 2023 Broyles Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach. He is a young defensive mind who  also comes with experience at other Power 5 programs in Texas A&M and Wake Forest. 

Along with Santucci come two more assistants: Kyle Pope and Jess Simpson. After leading  Memphis to four straight bowl berths and directing a unit ranked top 25 in third and fourth down conversions, Pope will take over as the outside linebackers/edge coach. Simpson will coach the defensive line and comes in from Duke. 

Simpson and Santucci have chemistry from working together at Duke this past year and look to carry their strong relationship over to their time at Tech. Santucci, Pope and Simpson are big additions for Key, but the challenge of keeping and acquiring on-field defensive talent will be an early test for them. 

A lot of the notable names from last season have entered the portal or graduated. Defensive lineman Kyle Kennard and linebacker Paul Moala led the team in tackles for loss, both with 11, and will not be returning this coming year. 

However, there are still players coming in from the transfer portal. Former Furman defensive end Jack Barton is joining the team along with signed talented freshmen like edge rusher Amontrae Bradford, defensive lineman Uche Iloh, and linebacker Jordan Boyd. 

A lot of optimism comes with the incoming year as there is nowhere to go but up defensively. With a tough schedule on the horizon, the Jackets need to field a strong defense in hopes of returning to a bowl game again. 

Tech is retaining a majority of its offensive talent this year and with the support of a strong defense, the Jackets could make real noise in the ACC. 

In his first season, Brent Key made major improvements to the offense by hiring offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner and re-imagining Tech’s passing game. Fans are hoping that Santucci will have a similar effect on a defense badly in need of a new direction.