* Previous All-ACC first team selection
For once the safety position at Georgia Tech will be the strength of the defense and has two of the best starters on the entire team. This position is lead by starters James Butler & Dawan Landry. They are the two top returning tacklers on the team with 119 for Butler last season and 85 for Landry. Butler also led the team in interceptions and is arguably the top returning safety in the conference.
James Butler could be our version of Sean Taylor this season. He's the do-it-all safety that will once again be a candidate for all kinds of post season accolades if he continues his good play. Personally though, I see him taking his play to a higher level. You have to keep in mind that last season was his first season as a full-time starter. He should be even better this year. During spring he showed that he could be the leader on defense. He constantly keeps the other defensive backs in line as well as communicates well with the linebackers and defensive linemen. He has the athletic body type that the NFL loves for Safeties at 6'3", 210 pounds and could really improve his stock as a pro prospect with another solid season.
Dawan Landry isn't one to be overshadowed by his partner in crime. Landry is a highlight reel-type punishing hitter who plays closer to the line of scrimmage most times. Dawan, a former quarterback himself, is someone quarterbacks would be wise in keeping track of where he is at all times. He's always looking to make a knockout blow. He and Butler had the kind of spring you would expect. Both were all over the field and made many solid plays. I got the impression though that they were being held back at times from completely killing offensive players, especially quarterbacks. But opposing teams shouldn't expect any such quarter to be given to them once the season starts.
Former Safety, Chris Reis
The first question mark at the position arises once you start talking about the backups. The top backup was Chris Reis, who was moved to linebacker. I have no doubts that he'd be quickly moved back to Safety were there to be a long term injury from one of the starters but other than that I expect him to stay at linebacker and for the others to step up and fill in to give Dawan and James the occasional rest. So the question to ask is who will be Dawan's backup at the strong safety position.
Before getting into Landry's backup, there's no doubt who Butler's backup is, senior Nate Burton. Burton had a very tough spring but he was put into an unusual position. With 2 of the top 3 cornerbacks sitting out spring practice, Nate was moved to first team corner to give him some more reps and he really wasn't the best fit at that spot. I think he thrives better as the centerfielder on the defense at free safety. Some of the more experienced receivers, like Nate Curry and Levon Thomas, took advantage of the experiment with Burton. But don't let his bad spring performance fool you. He's a very good backup for Butler and can more than hold his own at the position. Nate is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship last season.
The pleasant surprise of the spring was the improved play of Avery Roberson. Avery had a tougher adjustment from high school ball last fall than he probably expected. The game moved much faster and was more physical so he was going to have to get better in that area. And that's just what he did this spring. He rose to the occasion and got a lot tougher. Roberson received work the entire spring on the second team with Reis moving to linebacker and Burton playing cornerback. Both players stood in Avery's way for playing time his freshman season, but it allowed him to redshirt. Roberson is versatile enough to play either safety positions so I have no doubt we'll see him on the field from time to time this season. He'll also play a big role on special teams.
Joe Gaston is a guy with a great attitude and will fly around the field to hit you. He was banged up during spring and unfortunately for him fell behind for playing time. I have to wonder if he doesn't make the 2-deep again at safety if we'll think about redshirting him, especially if he's still banged up. If he's healthy though, he'll probably play because at the very least, he's a valuable special teams player, making 6 solo tackles last season. If it's between Gaston or Roberson right now though to backup Landry, I'd have to give the edge to Avery.
Overall I'm very excited about this group of Safeties. GT has probably the best starting duo in the conference for beginners plus a diverse group of backups. Burton is the steady senior. Gaston is the lunch pail guy. Avery is the talented athlete looking for his niche. And behind all of them we have a talented freshman on the way in Djay Jones. I envision Djay playing on special teams but he'll have to make a huge early impression in order to win playing time over Burton, Roberson & Gaston. Overall I'm happy with this makeup of this group. With there being 2 seniors and 1 junior among the 7 Safeties, I hope to see us land 2 more in this upcoming recruiting season.