Georgia Tech '08 Recruiting Review – DB

Kamaron Riley can play either position

With National Signing Day over and Georgia Tech's recruiting class completed, GoJackets.com is taking a position-by-position look at the 2008 recruiting class. Today, we will look at the defensive backs.

Defensive Backs

New Additions (5):
Rashaad Reid, Kamaron Riley, Jon Lockhart, Brandon Leslie, Cooper Taylor


Depth Chart:
CB: Jahi Word-Daniels, Jerrard Tarrant, Tony Clark, Rashaad Reid, Kamaron Riley
CB: Mario Butler, Dominique Reese, Michael Peterson, Jon Lockhart
SS: D.J. Donley, Martin Frierson, DeRon Jasper, Brandon Leslie
FS: Morgan Burnett, Willie White, Jake Blackwood, Cooper Taylor


Position Needs:
Position needs… there were plenty of them heading into the recruiting season. The 2007 team carried 5 seniors in the defensive backfield including three starters and two backups. The safety position left the biggest holes with Jamal Lewis, Djay Jones and Joe Gaston moving on.

Jamal (strong safety) was a super defender who was able to play and start at either safety or corner much like Chris Young who came before him and played for a time in the NFL. I suspect Lewis could have similar success as a pro.

Djay manned the free safety spot opposite Jamal and was a two year starter. Before becoming a starter he trained behind a good one. Baltimore Ravens starter Dawan Landry was the FS in 2005 before Jones took over in '06 and '07. Djay had his shares of ups and downs in his two years as starters but finished very strong with 14 total tackles in games against uga and Fresno State.

"Bazooka" Joe a safety/nickel back was seemingly at Georgia Tech forever. He did things kind of backwards in terms of which year he sat out for Tech. He played special teams as a true freshman then worked his way up the depth chart only to have a season-ending knee injury in spring of the 2006 season – his senior season. So instead of ending his career, he stayed around for his fifth year and endured a year of rehab.

At corner Tech loses two guys who were always seemingly fighting for their spot on the depth chart and looking for the right position to contribute. Patrick Clark was a very good athlete it was just a matter of finding the best fit for him. He started out as a slot receiver for his first two years and seemed like a good fit there. In spring of 2006 he was moved to corner where coaches thought he might be able to help out even more than he could at receiver. Since he was being counted on to challenge for a starting role, he never sat a year to redshirt and learn the position. He started 4 games in 2006 but struggled after that to keep a steady role. Hindsight is 20/20 but this could be one of the rare cases with the previous staff where the player might have been better off without the position change. I personally liked Pat because he always stopped and posed for pictures!

Avery Roberson was the other senior corner and he worked his way up the depth chart every year. He seemed to be a guy who'd be lost in the depth charts after his first three years at Tech, two as a safety after redshirting as a freshman. Finally after cross-training between safety and corner he finally earned his first start as a RS-Junior. He started games at both positions that year, 2006, showing his value as a hybrid defensive back. The hard work and effort continued to pay off for Avery as a senior when he started all but one game last season. Roberson's story should remind players to not ever give up when you can never seem to get your head above water on the depth chart and remind fans to not count anyone out just because they didn't fulfill their athletic promise for their first three years.

With the five guys moving only one is an NFL talent but there is a lot of experience and games started they are taking with them. I don't think you'd want to come out of the recruiting season with anything less than 4 new backs.


Spring Practice Report:
The bad news, as explained above, is losing five seniors with many games started under their belt and lots of character. The good news is that, as a group, the backs moving up could be the most talented group of backs at Tech in some time. The talent level is rising it's just a matter of turning potential talent into tangible results on the field.

Before getting into all of the young guns, you must first talk about the old man in the group - Jahi Word-Daniels. A starter last year, he's the incumbent corner heading into spring but the talented youths will not let him hold it without a fight. With a new head coach and defensive coordinator at the helm, the younger guys will be on more of an even ground when it comes to making an impression.

Mario Butler is one of the talented young backs and could be the man to beat opposite Jahi as we head into spring. I will caution though not to get as caught up in the traditonal depth chart this year. It is my understanding that Coach Charles Kelly, formerly the special teams coach, is interested in rotating corners more this year in his role as defensive backs coach. So you could see four guys coming in and out of games this coming season. Additionally, there may be many times the team lines up in nickle formations so there could be five backs on the field for a lot of the time.

In terms of starters though, I mentioned that Jahi shouldn't get too comfortable. That's because redshirt freshman Jerrard Tarrant has moved over from safety to corner and is expected to earn playing time right away. Dominique Reese and Michael Peterson will also battle Tarrant and the others for a spot in the rotation. When fans heard that Tech was going to an option offense and lacked many quarterbacks who could run that kind of offense, many thought 'Nique could get a look there since he was an option QB in high school. That doesn't appear to be the case though. Reese impressed last year as a backup and will continue to push for a spot this season. Peterson is a physical back who could also hit his way into a role in the rotation.

Finally, Tony Clark it seems may be listed at corner again this year instead of linebacker, where I listed him in an earlier report. He's probably the best combination of strength and speed at corner though he's probably not as shifty as some of the others. He'll continue to be a major force as a special teams player at the very least.

Now to the really interesting questions - Does D.J. Donley return to the team? Will he be eligible to play if he does return and how does he figure into the depth chart? Publically we've seen many confusing statements from Donley or people connected with him. The former wide receiver-turned-defensive back is an obvious talent no matter which side of the ball he plays on. The only question with him is what's really going on with him and does he want to be here. We have stated on this site since the Donley talk flared up the first time that he did have some unhappiness at GT but that it was not football related. All of the rumor mongering has come full circle now and publications are now asking the question will he actually stay at Tech. I believe he will. I think things will be worked out and he'll return. Certainly though, spring is out of the question, so the depth chart will look different though I think if/when he returns, he grabs a starting role, or at the very least a significant chunk of playing time. It will probably take him getting back to school in time for summer for him to be able to play in fall. The biggest win will be just keeping him here at Tech. If he has to redshirt next year, I don't think anyone will be upset at all, though I see a scenario where it all works itself out to where he returns and can play in fall.

In spite of the talk about Donley and his high potential, we have another young talent who has already turned potential into on-the-field success. Morgan Burnett has become the real star of the defensive backfield and could probably start at any of the four positions. We've even suggested he could figure into the mix at quarterback if the coaches wanted to go in that direction. I see him anchoring the defensive backfield though instead of playing on offense. Either way, it's clear he's a special talent and is going to continue being a wonderful college football player for the next three years.

It appears that a position change from wide receiver has worked out well for another young talent. Willie White has taken well to being sent to defensive back and will surely be in the depth chart this spring. White is the #2 free safety but he can also move to nickel coverage and lock down the slot receiver when we use 5 DBs. If he truly shines once practices starts it will be interesting to see if they think about moving Morgan to strong safety in order to get both on the field.

Others in the mix include: Martin Frierson, Jake Blackwood, and DeRon Jasper. Spring will be an important period for Frierson. He continues the theme of former receivers turned into defensive backs. He's really built himself up since the switch and is looking less like the wiry receiver he was when he first arrived on campus. He'll be a strong candidate to start out at strong safety without Donley in the mix for spring. Blackwood, unlike Frierson, has had more problems getting bigger. That won't be as important with the new defensive coordinator since he likes speed and guys who can move well over big lumbering backs who can't turn their hips. Still Jake's not the fastest or most physical but he does know the position and has gotten a lot of reps under his belt. He and Jasper figure to make a move this spring for a shot at the two-deep.


Who GT signed:

Rashaad Reid

Height: 5-10
Weight: 180
Home Town (High School): St. Augustine, FL (St. Augustine H.S.)
Other offers included: Arkansas, Indiana, South Florida, Vanderbilt, West Virginia
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Charles Kelly
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking: 92
Scout.com Southeastern Ranking: NR
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 57 (CB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR

Reid was a good get for several reasons. Most importantly he's a good player. If you watched his videos at either of the events on National Signing Day then you were probably quite impressed. Also his school St. Augustine High is a good place to find talent. It would be nice to continue to recruit well there. We nearly landed his teammate Carlton Lewis as well but it didn't work out. Still it's nice to get a foothold at that high school.

Fans had to sweat what Reid was going to do after the coaching change. Many schools had jumped back into the mix for him after Coach Gailey and most of his coaches, including Rashaad's position coach, were let go. "I am hearing a lot from Arkansas, North Carolina State, South Florida, and of course West Virginia," Reid said to our Dale McDuffie during that time period. Though rumors continued to persist about him entertaining other offers and second-guessing his decision, he made strong statements denying that talk and stuck by those words. "No sir, not at all," Reid told McDuffie emphatically. "If signing day was today (Jan 13, 2008), I would sign with Georgia Tech. That rumor and any like that are completely false. I've talked it over with everyone and feel my decision is the right one and I am happy with it. I am committed to the Yellow Jackets."

Fans are glad that it worked out because Rashaad is a solid prospect who stood by his words and stuck it out through the coaching change. Reid, who prefers to play Field Corner over Boundary Corner, is hopeful he can work himself into the depth chart early on. "I know if I apply myself and do the work needed I will be able to see playing time my freshman year."

Recruiting Analyst Mike Bakas on Rashaad Reid:
"He's not the biggest kid in the world but he has pretty good speed and excellent cover skills and should fit in nicely in an ACC style of defense."

Kamaron Riley

Height: 6-1
Weight: 178
Home Town (High School): Hawkinsville, GA (Hawkinsville H.S.)
Other offers included: Indiana, Marshall, Vanderbilt
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Giff Smith
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking:NR
Scout.com Southeastern Ranking: NR
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 95 (CB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Other Honors: A 1st team all-state

Speaking of creating a pipeline to a high school - Riley will be the fourth player from Hawkinsville on the roster this year. He'll join OL Trey Dunmon and DE Robert Hall, and walk-on quarterback Jim Henry. Kam is a versatile back who could line up as a safety or even a corner. He is also a good enough player to garner consideration as wide receiver. It looks like he'll start out as a corner and could remind you physically of Kenny Scott as a taller, lanky corner.

Riley committed early in the process very shortly after receiving his offer from Tech. Coaches were impressed with Kam's performance at camp last summer where he ran a 4.5 40. "I was on my way home from the camp when I got the call," Riley said at the time. "I was excited about it but I needed some time to think about it at first." He didn't think about it long though. Riley was firmly committed to Tech the entire time and really felt comfortable at the school. I suspect we'll see him a few times on campus for some of the sprig practices.

Recruiting Analyst Scott Kennedy on Kamaron Riley:
"He can play on both sides of the ball. When I watched him play I actually liked him better at wide receiver. He seemed to run to the ball a little better and play with a little more enthusiasm. Good size, good hands, and can make an acrobatic catch. I think where he plays depends on the team."


Jon Lockhart

Height: 5-11 1/2
Weight: 184
Home Town (High School): Blountstown, FL (Blountstown H.S.)
Other offers included: Duke, Indiana, Mississippi, Mississippi St., Central Florida, Vanderbilt
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Charles Kelly
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking: 95
Scout.com Southeastern Ranking: NR
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 60 (CB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR

Lockhart seemed like he'd get caught up in the wave of commits from guys who all attended one of the combines at Tech last summer. While Richard Watson, Steven Sylvester, and A.J. Jenkins (later de-committed) were all jumping on board it seemed apparent that Jon would be part of that group as well. But, he took his time and looked at a couple of other opportunities before finally going with Tech, where it was assumed he'd end up all along. He also never entered the conversation about commits who wavered on his commitment during the coaching change. Once he decided he was "locked" in!

Jon has a reputation as being a great athlete. In the Scout.com Jacksonville combine he had an eye-popping 41' vertical leap. You'd think he'd also be very much into basketball too considering that skill. He says he has played hoops for the past three seasons but will give it up this year. "I play but I'm not really into it to much," said Lockhart who prefers street ball over organized play.

The athletic ability is there for him to get onto the field early. It will be interesting to see if Coach Johnson gives him a shot at special teams in order to get his feet wet and get used to the speed of the game, though he says he has a tendency to not want to play freshman who are only going to see time on special teams.

Recruiting Analyst Scott Kennedy on Jon Lockhart:
"Physically he's got everything you're looking for. He's big enough he can play safety too which is something you might not think about. Good measurables – he came to our combine and he got the 7.16 3-cone and the 4.4 shuttle. Basically he's telling you that he's got the lateral movement to be a corner and he's got that 41-inch vertical. Good size – nice pickup."




Brandon Leslie

Height: 6-0
Weight: 195
Home Town (High School): Fresno, CA (Edison H.S.)
Other offers included: Air Force, Arizona, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, Washington
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Brian Jean-Mary
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking: 67
Scout.com Western Ranking: NR
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 46 (S)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR

The funny thing with Leslie is that he was so ready to commit to Tech early that he was going to try and commit before the Yellow Jacket coaches were even ready for him too. He was set to make an announcement between Tech and Nebraska but was told he needed to come to campus for a visit and to have a shoulder looked at that he had injured in his junior season. Tech coaches really wanted him but had to take that precaution early on and in doing so risked losing out on a guy they really wanted to come to Atlanta all the way from California. So, Brandon called off the announcement and became a Yellow Jacket after his official visit. In this case everything worked out well once all the bumps in the road were worked out. You have to be excited about a guy who wants to be a Yellow Jacket that badly and will move all the way across the country to do so.

Brandon had this to say to Jared Kimmel after committing, "I got there and the area of the school was just great. It's right there in downtown Atlanta. I was kind of surprised at that. You know, there's so much to do in the area. Also, that game against Clemson. The defense played outstanding. Those two running backs at Clemson are great, but that defense was just amazing. I want to be a part of that D. The people at the school, and the fans, they really showed me a lot of love. The coaches like me and I want to play for them. It really feels like it's the right spot. It felt good to get the commitment out of the way, so I can focus on school now and to help my football team win a championship."

Well, he won't exactly play for all of the coaches he visited that weekend but his recruiting coach, Brian Jean-Mary, was retained along with Giff Smith who remains the Tech Recruiting Coordinator. "When I found out Coach BJ (Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary) was staying, I was really pumped up," said Leslie. "He was the coach who recruited me. It was real good news, also that coach (Charles) Kelly and coach (Giff) Smith will be staying."

Recruiting Analyst Brandon Huffman on Brandon Leslie:
"First things first, when you get a DB from Edison HS in Fresno, you know he's going to be fundamentally sound, and ready to play early. They've sent so many players on to college from their secondary in the last 10 years, that most of the Pac-10 has claimed one as their own. Leslie missed most of his junior year with a shoulder injury, and slowly worked his way through the spring as rehabbed it. By summer, he looked like he did as a sophomore, when he was one of the elite DBs in the state. He's gotten thicker, so he'll be able to withstand the physical play at safety. He's gotten much quicker and his feet have really improved. The secondary at Edison was arguably the best in the country, with two elite juniors, a five-star corner and Leslie, so he's used to raising his game. Leslie has a high football IQ, and one thing you'll see from Edison players is because of their technique and strong knowledge of the game, they'll almost always play as a true freshman."








Cooper Taylor

Height: 6-4 1/2
Weight: 180
Home Town (High School): Atlanta, GA (Marist H.S.)
Other offers included: Duke, Marshall, Mississippi St., Virginia
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Brian Jean-Mary
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking: 58
Scout.com Southeastern Ranking: NR
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 79 (S)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR

I'll admit it, I guessed wrong on Cooper Taylor. I thought the pride of Marist would end up picking Virginia over GT. Instead he follows in his dad's footsteps and became a Yellow Jacket too. Jim Bob Taylor played as a quarterback for Tech. Cooper is capable of playing that position, especially in Coach Johnson's option scheme, but instead he'll use his nice combination of size and speed at safety. His athleticism may surprise some. He's tall but with a good frame to add more and carry it well while maintaining his speed. He could be a monster physically after a year or two in the program. He could evoke memories of former Tech safety Jeremy Muyres, who made 1st or 2nd team All-ACC for three straight years. Cooper will have some work to do though to match some of Jeremy's accomplishments.

When Tech hired Coach Johnson to take over the team, it didn't diminish Cooper's enthusiasm for his team. "I told Coach Johnson that I'd play anywhere they needed me to play, that I am extremely excited, very much pumped about attending Georgia Tech. Coach Johnson really has it together and knows what it takes to win."

Recruiting Analyst Scott Kennedy on Cooper Taylor:
"He was forced to play quarterback this year, so it was tough to get a good read on what he's going to be able to do in college this year because he's not going to be a quarterback. He's got a good frame – as far as his size. He's a tall kid, can play safety or wide receiver. He knows the game and won't make a lot of mistakes. Coming from Marist, he's well coached. Rangy would be a good way to describe him with that height and speed that he's got."




The one who got away:
Cornerback:
Lee Butler (Duke)

I'll list two who "got away" – one corner and one safety. Butler was the easy call here since technically he was still committed to Tech up to and including Signing Day. He originally committed to Duke, switched to Tech, then turned back to Duke at the last minute. He must have been pulled in so many directions. It's a shame because the Tech coaches really liked him and he is a very nice kid. He is also blazing fast so it would have been nice to add him from a potential standpoint to the defensive backfield. Duke worked hard to keep him but now he'll have to face Tech's new and potentially explosive offense for the next four years.

Makiri Pugh (Georgia) is another guy who came down to Tech and one other school in the end and went with the other guy. Again, it was a team on our schedule every year and worse, the team down the road that wears red. Others with offers along the way this past recruiting season at corner include: Jeremy Brown (Florida), David Rowe (Rutgers), Brandon Harris (Miami), Kenny Okoro (Wake Forest), Travis Howard (Ohio State). Okoro didn't want to leave the area and Howard was a package deal to Ohio State along with high school teammate Etienne Sabino, who Tech also liked but as a linebacker.

Safety:
J.T. Floyd (Michigan)

This one was a much closer call between Floyd and T'Sharvan Bell (Auburn). Floyd was seemingly ready to move away from his commitment to Tennessee. GT was right there the mix for his services along with Michigan. The Michigan coaching change brought with it some unexpected skill sets from their new recruiters. "I love the campus and the academics they offer as my recruiting coach at Michigan has connections with ING and that made the visit great," said Floyd before announcing for Michigan. "I really want to go to work in that type of field, especially ING." Bell was a top target for both of Tech's coaching staffs but it was clear he wasn't going to go away from Auburn.

There was another group of three safeties Tech was on pretty hard early on. Carlton Lewis (Clemson), Karnell Hatcher (LSU), and Keanon Cooper (Minnesota) at one point or another all seemed like there was a chance they could be Yellow Jackets. Lewis could have teamed up with his high school buddy Rashaad Reid but he took a long time to commit after saying Tech was his leader. I think the Tech coaches were probably ready to move on to someone else after a while. Tech didn't have much of a chance for either Hatcher or Cooper after the coaching change.

Other receiving offers along the way at some point included: Xavier Avery (Georgia), Mike Shanahan (Pittsburgh), Wesley Neighbors (Alabama), and Nick Moody (Florida State). Avery is a super athlete and could end up playing baseball or could be a running back in football. Shanahan was another two-sport star and seemed to indicate early on that he preferred basketball over football. He changed his mind later on after Tech was long out of the picture and Pitt benefited from that decision. Neighbors' father Billy played football for Alabama so no surprise he ended up there.


Final Analysis:
This was a pretty successful catch for the Yellow Jacket coaches. Tech lost five seniors and replaced them with five good prospects. There really wasn't an anchor out of this group. All five kind of bring something different to the mix. There are all types of builds and measurables in this group. It will be interesting to follow the path of all five and see who separates themselves and where each of them ends up position wise. Overall they join a young and talented group of defensive backs already on campus. These five will have to be pretty good to play early considering they'll have to jump some pretty promising young talent from last year.

Having that one more guy in this group would have been ideal in terms of numbers. It's a shame Butler was turned back to Duke because he would have been a good fit with the group we brought. His extra dimension of speed would have been good to throw into the mix. It also would have been nice to have that one blue chip prospect to kind of hang your hat on but now all five guys can sort of battle it out on level ground in terms of fan expectations as they enter school. If you ask Hivers who their favorite defensive back recruit is, you probably won't get a consensus on just one guy. I have my choice but I'm not telling… okay, it's Lockhart!

Thanks to Scott Kennedy, Mike Bakas, Dale McDuffie, Jared Kimmel, and Rod Mackenzie for contributions to this article!

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