WLB: Kyle Jackson, Julian Burnett, Albert Rocker
MLB: Brad Jefferson, B.J. Machen, Lucas Cox
SLB: Steven Sylvester, Malcolm Munroe, Brandon Watts, Quayshawn Nealy
I will also offer this disclaimer. The above projected depth chart will most likely be completely wrong from how the spring lineup will finish (or even begin for that matter). Since the current players were not recruited for the 3-4, obviously all will not fit perfectly with the ideal profile for their positions. Some will fit nicely but others may have to be moved around a few times before Coach Groh gets them in just the right place for them to be most successful. All of that will not prevent me from at least making an educated guess on how the positions will shake out and give you an idea where each guy could end up.
As for position needs in terms of numbers, linebackers added a position while the defensive line lost a spot. That means that unless Tech had way too many linebackers before – they didn't – then numbers are going to look light in year one with a need to recruit many more at the position. A way to combat that – still leaving you with a young corps in year one – was to recruit a big class of linebackers. However, there are two big issues with achieving that goal. One, it was a relatively small class so if you wanted to make up the gap quickly, you'd have to fall short at other areas of need. Two, Al Groh was hired in mid-January with signing day around the corner on February 3rd. That means it was pretty late in the game to readjust class of 2010 recruiting philosophies toward specific positions for a new scheme. The groundwork for the class was laid out by that time. Not only did numbers needs by position change late in the game but the types of players being recruited changed. It's awfully tough to make such shifts near the finish line of a long process. There was one notable late success in recruiting specifically for the 3-4 as Coach Groh was able to leverage prior relationships to get Tech an ideal OLB but it tough to expect much more than that with so little time with which to work.
To further understand recruiting needs, it makes sense to get a general idea of where the 3-4 defensive scheme came from, what's expected out of and what personnel best fit that system. The 3-4 is relatively more popular in professional football than in college but that trend could change in the future. The Bill Parcels coaching tree is mainly responsible for the popularity of the 3-4 "movement". Bill Belichick came up through his ranks to make that scheme very successful in the NFL in recent years. That success typically breeds imitation in subsequent years by other teams and when the NFL has success they often look to college football as the sort of farm program to provide such desired players. Another big name coach to branch from the Parcels line is Nick Saban, the current coach of the college football national champion Alabama team. And, of course, Al Groh comes from that system too as he coached under both Parcels and Belichick and will bring his version of the system to Tech. The success of Alabama in 2009 could lead other college football teams to look in that direction.
Some in the NFL look at the 3-4 not only in terms of its advantages on the field but as a cost-wise method of filling out a roster. Defensive linemen carry with them the highest price tags on defense. The average defensive end makes the most by position for NFL defenses followed by defensive tackles. Linebackers are not next but fall after cornerback and before safety in the pecking order. Additionally, it much tougher to find four guys to fill out the front line of a 4-3 scheme who have the right combination of size and athleticism. Linebackers with preferred size and athletic ability are much easier to find.
Some of the same arguments can be made in the college game for being able to land the right talent for your team. College teams are not fitting in players into a salary cap like in the NFL but they do deal with the same supply and demand fundamentals. Everyone wants the scarce resource that is the top rated defensive linemen. After the top name programs are done picking through the litter other teams are getting what's left over or taking smaller guys and trying to project their body size to be able to grow into the type of players they need. Tech has done that for years.
While the college game is saturated with 4-3 defensive schemes, the 3-4 can have a kind of novelty affect. Teams will prepare most weeks to score against the 4-3 then have to learn different game plans for the random 3-4 teams on just a week's notice in most cases. GT has had problems with Virginia in past years as evidence (okay, not last year because UVA was a very bad team in 2009). The novelty affect should make teams very weary of playing against the Yellow Jackets in the future. Teams will have to adjust in a short amount of time to not only an uncommon offense but now a defense as well. And both sides of the ball for GT is being run by guys who have run their respective systems well, for a long time, and have shown they can make believers in their system by their players and opposing teams.
As the 3-4 defense remains popular in the NFL, college coaches can use that as a meaningful recruiting tool for high school players. If a player sees himself as fitting the 3-4 system in the NFL he may be inclined to go to a school that runs it as well. Additionally in recruiting, prototypical 3-4 players may be easier to find since most others are looking for 4-3 players. The combination of those recruiting advantages to go along with Alabama's and Tech's success are probably contributing factors for UGA to now shift to a 3-4 defense with the addition of new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Georgia will now see the 3-4 in their own practices, feel it is a better equipped defense to handle the Tech offense and they'll continue to compete with Tech and Bama often times for the same defensive players. The college trend to 3-4 is alive and well in this state.
In terms of on field action in the 3-4, linebackers are the guys on the front seven who basically make all of the plays. I'll go into more depth on gap assignments for the front three in the defensive line report, but the defensive line has a hugely important role in this scheme. That role is to take up attention from most all of the offensive linemen so that the backers can make the plays. The nose tackle is a huge space eater and the defensive ends no longer rack up the big sack numbers. Since the ends (and tackle) have more responsibility for stopping the run, the outside linebackers now have pass rushing duties.
Speaking of outside linebackers, what should they look like in the 3-4? Many high school defensive ends make for good outside backers in the 3-4. On the strong side ("Sam") you'll have probably your strongest linebacker – think Cory Reamer from Alabama. They will typically have support the run and shed blocks from big tight ends and full backs. They also have to be agile enough to drop back into passing lanes and defend those same players in the passing game – though it could be a slot receiver as well as a TE or back. The other outside linebacker ("Jack") is now your biggest pass-rusher that the weak-side defensive end used to be. This is the position held most notably by Lawrence Taylor (6'3", 241). At either outside position, the linebacker will need to help out in pass coverage as well as support run defense. The outside linebackers are typically taller than the inside guy usually around the 6'4" range and are heavier than 4-3 outside backers. Ideally you'd like them to be in the 240-260 range. Many of Tech's former taller, wiry, undersized defensive ends would be better fits to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 – think Darrell Robertson, Michael Johnson, or going way back a younger Felipe Claybrooks. The wiry frames are good for keeping tall tackles off of them if engaged. They also have outside contain in the running game.
The inside linebackers ("Mike" & "Will") do not have to be as tall as the outside backers as they will range from 6'0" to 6'4" but because of their need to support the run and take on big interior offensive guards, you'll probably not see many more of the 6'1", 225-pound or smaller linebackers. There are several on the team now but I suspect that build will be on the low end of the scale for future backers on this team when running the 3-4. Most inside backers will be 235-255 pounds, though you'll still see some very talented slightly smaller backers still being recruited. A good, tough, talented player who plays "bigger" will not be turned away just because he's not the ideal build.
The Mike backer is like the MLB on the 4-3. He's the signal caller and is often times the heart and soul of the LB group. He plays on the strong side and will try and meet ball carriers at the line of scrimmage – hopefully the NT has engaged the center and guard already. In passing situations the Mike will often drop back into a middle zone to help defend against the pass. The safeties should no longer threaten to be the top tacklers on the team – this guy should be. He'll be all over the place.
The Will backer has to be a smart, patient player. He will often cover the backside pursuit of the ball carriers which means he probably is the fastest of the backers. The Will can be smaller than the Mike since he doesn't have to take on the offensive guards quite as often even though they both lineup at about the same depth from the line of scrimmage.
Overall the main calling card for the 3-4 defense is flexibility. It's a good base defense to shift into other looks, including the traditional 4-3 by moving the outside backer to the line and putting his hand on the ground. Move both OLB's to the line and show a 5-2. Four-man fronts don't typically have the flexibility to drop eight men in to coverage if so desired. But the most useful advantage out of the 3-4 is the ability to disguise blitzes and coverages. It's an extra player for the quarterback to have to pick up versus knowing that the front four are coming on most plays.
To get a sense for what Coach Groh was likely looking for, I examined the 2009 Virginia roster for clues. The Cavalier inside linebackers on the 2009 pre-season two-deep were in the range of 6'1"-6'2" and weighed 225-230 pounds. Backup ILB Darnell Carter was the exception at 6'3", 245 pounds. The UVA outside linebackers were in the 6'4"-6'5" range and weighed a stouter 240-255. The OLB exception the smaller Jared Detrick coming in at 6'1", 235. In the event UVA was a bad example because it was a down year for them, I also checked Alabama's 3-4 linebackers. Interestingly there wasn't much of a discrepancy among ILB and OLB for the MNC Champs in regards to their build. Across their pre-season three-deep roster, both the inside and outside linebackers averaged heights of 6'3", and weighted around 230 pounds. Though UVA had bigger OLB's, Bama had bigger inside backers than the Cavs, particularly with starters Dont'a Hightower (prior to a knee injury in game four of the season against Arkansas) & Rolando McClain going 250+ on the scales. McClain, Bama's "Mike" backer easily led his team in tackles with 105. Virginia was likewise led in tackles by their inside linebacker Steve Greer with 92.
The most obvious fit for GT this spring at linebacker is having Brad Jefferson as the starting Mike. At 6'2", 237 pounds, he fits the role physically. He's also been the 4-3 Mike and player-caller and leader. Jefferson led the team in tackles in 2009 over safety Morgan Burnett. You can expect a repeat of him topping the list again in 2010 as long as he remains healthy. Brad could become a household name in the ACC this coming season. Look for him to really be pushed this spring by Coach Groh to know his responsibilities in this defense.
As for the rest of the inside backers, you first have to look for the shorter body types and figure this is probably the best place for them. I currently have the five shortest guys on the front seven slotted to play insider linebacker. Those players are: Julian Burnett (5-10, 221), Kyle Jackson (6-0, 230), Lucas Cox (6-0, 232), B.J. Machen (6-1 233), and Albert Rocker (6-1, 241).
Kyle Jackson, ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year (ACC Sports Journal), returns to the lineup after missing 2009 with a foot injury. Though on the short side, he'll be the favorite to start opposite Jefferson. I've currently slotted Julian Burnett as Kyle's backup. Burnett is the returning linebacker with the most 2009 tackles on the team after Jefferson. He is particularly undersized in comparison to linebackers on other teams that run a 3-4 defense. He's two inches shorter than any player at any of the front seven positions on either Alabama or Virginia. You have to really wonder if he would have ever been a Yellow Jacket had this scheme arrived before he did. For that matter, departing senior Sedric Griffin would be in the same boat. But Burnett is here and looked very promising as a true freshman. Though he doesn't have the ideal build for his role, he does have the prerequisite abilities and skills. He's tough-nosed and has pretty good wheels as well. He and Jackson will have to pursue runners from the backside in a smart way and not overrun plays.
B.J. Machen played some last year as a backup and showed some promise. The barrel-chested linebacker will likely backup Jefferson initially and mix it up with the interior linemen this spring in pursuit of the ball carriers this spring. The final backups on the inside are guys moving from other positions: Albert Rocker & Lucas Cox. Rocker is a linebacker-turned-defensive-lineman-turned-back-to-linebacker. At least that's the way I see it. Albert played sparingly in 2009 on the defensive line. He really is no longer big enough to be an end in the 3-4. He could conceivably play on the outside but he seems a better fit on the inside for now. I'd not be surprised though to see him tried out elsewhere. Lucas Cox continued to lose playing time on offense throughout the 2009 season after starting every game as an a-back in Coach Johnson's first season. He now goes to defense where he'll get a fresh start in a new scheme. Cox is on the short side for this defense, but then he wasn't an ideal fit for Johnson's offense in year one. Would it really surprise anyone if he were to pull it off again and earn big playing time at a newly created position while the new coach tries to bring in "his" players to the program? I doubt he could start every game like on offense in 2008 but I'm not ever planning on underestimating Lucas either.
Three guys who would otherwise seem to fit the ideal body types of the inside backers are being slated to start off spring on the outside. Steven Sylvester (6-2, 233), Malcolm Munroe (6-3, 222), and Brandon Watts (6-2, 225), for me, make up the three deep at the "Sam" position. At Virginia, Coach Groh was more used to having taller, heavier guys play there but the current GT linebacker corp is relatively on the small side across the board in comparison to their Virginia counterparts. By having to find room on the depth chart for the aforementioned insider backers, these three should open up spring on the outside. Steven Sylvester is the veteran of the group. He started the final nine games of 2009 and collected 40 tackles on the season. Steven has shown good ability in defending the run and the pass and will have to do both evenly as well this spring as his position dictates. Malcolm Munroe looked like a very promising athlete in limited time last season; in particular he made several great open field plays on special teams. I see him with a good future at this position. His taller frame and athleticism will allow him to be a pest for quarterbacks in the passing lanes and for keeping QBs from rolling out by punishing them for it. I look for Malcolm to really have a breakout spring. Brandon Watts is going to earn some reps in practice coming off of a redshirt freshman season. He could be a good candidate to move to the inside as well depending on how things shake out.
The remaining players at linebacker are the taller, bigger backers like Anthony Barnes (6-3, 230), Osahon Tongo (6-3, 237), and Chris Crenshaw (6-3, 238). Even though these guys may be good fits for the Jack position, Coach Groh is still used to even bigger guys filling out those roles. There are three players in particular who I've left at defensive end for now who better fit the dimensions of the Jack backers that Groh is used to playing. Euclid Cummings (6-4, 245), Emmanuel Dieke (6-6, 248), and Anthony Egbuniwe (6-4, 255) are still at end but it would not at all surprise me if Coach Groh tried them all out to see how they looked at outsider linebackers. The only trouble is that pulling them all out would leave the front three way too thin. It's another example of how GT is going to have to recruit bigger across the board and transition out the old ways of using the shorter, quicker one-gap linemen and fast but diminutive linebackers. For now though, it's going to have to work given the current personnel. Groh is going to be tempted though to make shifts down a position to get a bigger guy in place; it will be a balancing act.
As for the current projections for Jack, Barnes finally gets his shot to be a regular starter. Tech fans have pined for AT for years and maybe this is his year. He had 16 tackles in 2009 – the same as he had in 2008. This should be the year he shines, though I suspect the competition will be as fierce for his spot as any along the front seven since so many could fit the bill physically there. If Coach Groh becomes tempted to give a shot to a current DE at linebacker, it would happen here. Osahon Tongo and Chris Crenshaw fill out the depth chart at the position for which Lawrence Taylor is still the model. Our current players won't be mistaken for LT anytime soon in spite of similar physical characteristics. Hopefully they'll do their best impressions in spring though.
Home Town (High School): Washington, DC (Archbishop Carroll HS)
Other offers included: Duke, Illinois, Kansas State, Louisville, Maryland, Minnesota, Syracuse, Virginia
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Al Groh
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking (Regardless of Position): 2 (DC)
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 52 (OLB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Scout.com East Ranking (Regardless of Position): 74
Georgia Tech was fortunate to land Jeremiah when they did so late in the recruiting season. He committed to Tech with a week and a half to go before national signing day. Jeremiah, a high school defensive end, is just the kind of linebacker Coach Groh likes to use on the outside and, in fact, Groh is the main reason Attaochu is coming to GT. "I like the idea of Coach Groh as my defensive coordinator and position coach," said Attaochu to Dale McDuffie soon after his commitment. "Having a Super Bowl winner and former head coach as your DC and position coach is great. That was a huge positive for me in selecting Georgia Tech. I like the opportunity of having Coach Groh as my DC and position coach a lot."
Once he arrived at GT, Coach Groh knew he needed to quickly change the recruiting search parameters for front seven defensive players. Groh was familiar with Attaochu already since he was recruited by Virginia and held an offer there. Jeremiah, who is originally from Nigeria, was still open to the idea of playing for Coach Groh and decided to check out the coach's new digs in Atlanta. Attaochu committed following his official visit on Sunday, January 24th.
Jeremiah has a big, solid frame with room to put on even more weight. At 6'3", 223 pounds now, he could project to play in the 240 pound range in another year or so. That would be just right for one of the outside linebacker positions. There may not be an urgent need to get him onto the field in year one. There are already a good number of players slotted at the OLB positions for 2010. Some of those players could move inside to free up space but it's just as likely others currently slotted at defensive end could move back into an OLB position. Ideally, coaches would like to redshirt Attaochu and have him fill out into his frame. But often times good athletes are not left on the bench to redshirt, particular if they show usefulness in special teams.
In the larger scheme, Attaochu will turn out to be an important player for Georgia Tech. Not only do his skill sets fit exactly what they are looking for in a 3-4 OLB, but when it looked like Tech wouldn't begin to get 3-4 type players until the 2011 class Groh landed Attaochu to get Tech a head start at least with one player.
John Wallpher – Scout.com Recruiting Analyst:
Attaochu has all the physical tools coaches seek. He is very athletic with good size and very good closing speed. He stands about 6'3" and weighs 220 pounds. He runs well (4.69 forty) and is very strong. He plays defensive end although shows good linebacker skills as well. He is very fast off the edge as a pass rusher. He can keep his balance even when the lineman gets a hand on him. He has very good leverage and brings the thunder when he hits you. He has the athleticism to drop in space and run down screen plays. He can also get to the other sideline to disrupt a play.
Message board excerpts from Wallpher following Attaochu's commitment to GT:
Attaochu is a great get. I really like this kid. Mature, grounded and a great player. He offers size, speed and athleticism. Very nice surprise for Wreck fans.
I have been a fan of Attaochu for some time now. I know players are busts sometimes but he brings so much to the table I will be surprised if he isn't an impact player for you guys. You don't see players with his measurables everyday.
Home Town (High School): Lakeland, FL (Lakeland HS)
Other offers included: Georgia, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan, Mississippi, Purdue, South Florida, Tulane
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Brian Jean-Mary
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 45 (OLB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Scout.com Southeast Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Georgia Tech raced to its first 12 commitments in the Class of 2010 by the end of last August. Not knowing if they'd have many more scholarships to work with the offers became few and far between. Yellow Jacket coaches held out for some of the bigger name players, the blue-chip recruits. Some positions were also being completely left off the commitment board by that time including the linebackers. Finally by November Tech coaches decided they needed to secure at least one linebacker and they found one they really liked in Nealy.
At the time Quayshawn was heavily involved with Mississippi. In fact, Scout.com National Recruiting Editor Alan Wallace had articles in October and November titled "Can Rebels be Beat?" and "Rebels Still in Charge". In the November article, around the time Tech offered, Nealy told Wallace, "There's probably an 85-90-percent chance I'll commit to Ole Miss. I've thought about it already. I thought about committing a little while ago, but decided to wait." And waiting paid off for Quayshawn and for Georgia Tech. By the time Tech coaches worked their way in for an in-home visit in early December the commitment drought was over and Nealy was a Yellow Jacket, not a Rebel. Brian Jean-Mary, now former linebacker coach at Tech after leaving to coach the same position for Louisville – where he returns after being their Strength and Conditioning Graduate Assistant back in 2000 – did a great job with Nealy and was instrumental in getting him to Tech.
Nealy is rated by Scout.com at the same position as Attaochu and is, in fact, a few notches higher on the ladder. He also has a long list of great offers from other respected football programs. The one question I'd have to ask out loud now having written that is – would he have still been offered by Tech after the move to hand the defensive reins over to Coach Groh. As the previous sections clearly show, this defense generally calls for larger linebackers. Quayshawn's dimensions aren't 100% clear first of all. His self-reported height and weight is 6'1", 215 pounds. Scout.com Orlando combine figures have him at 6'0", 203 pounds. And Georgia Tech reports him as 6'1", 220 pounds. In any case, he'd be the lightest backer on the team at this time – though you always expect some good growth once they get to campus. Though he's written up as be equally as talented at Attaochu, Jeremiah's body type seems more ideal for the 3-4 defense. It's not to say he won't be successful here, but it would be interesting to know if Groh would have targeted Nealy had he come in earlier.
You can throw the what if's out now though because Quayshawn's a GT man now. The more relevant question now is where exactly he will best be utilized. Many of the smaller backers so far I've just stuck on the inside. From what I've read and seen of Nealy, he's got the skill set of an outside backer though Groh seems to clearly prefer taller guys on the outside. GT liked him as an outside guy in the 4-3, so it will be interesting to see where he starts off in fall.
Chad Simmons - South Recruiting Analyst (From Scout.com camp – Orlando):
After having a good start to the camp in the testing circuit, Nealy really turned it on during the positional drills and one on ones. He showed good lateral movement in the drills and then showed very good coverage skills and hands for a linebacker during the one on one session. He picked off passes two times in a row when he was tested and he blanketed backs out of the backfield all afternoon. He showed very good balance, footwork, and athleticism in Orlando.
Mike Bakas – Scout.com Recruiting Analyst (From Scout.com camp – Orlando):
Lakeland's Quayshawn Nealy (6-0/203) tested well and then looked excellent during the competition drills. It's easy to see why he's starting to attract some early offers.
Scout.com – Florida:
The leader of a very tough Lakeland defense in 2008, Nealy leads by example. He's quiet but plays a big game. He covers the field very well with good speed and is always around the football.
Parker would have looked good on any team in any defensive alignment. Clemson, South Carolina, LSU and Georgia Tech all made the final cut with Justin but I think fans of those other three schools felt a little better about their chances than Tech fans did. In the end Parker went to Clemson, where most of us suspected he'd end up all along.
There were some other big names along the way who GT had interest in. Some of those players include: Tyrone Cornileus (Miami), Shawn Kitchens (Auburn), Jeff Luc (Florida State), and Michael Taylor (Florida). Luc was the five-star pipe dream that never got close to happening. Really none of these other blue-chip guys were that close to being Yellow Jackets with the exception of Kitchens. Shawn told Dale McDuffie after committing to Auburn, "If I wanted to play linebacker I would be going to Georgia Tech because I really love the staff there and the campus too. That is how tough of a decision this was." Tech fans hoped relative Kendrick Cummings could help deliver Kitchens but in the end, all he delivered was heartache.
Already you can tell – the push is on for a substantial LB class for next season. It is reflected in the many 2011 offers that have already been extended, including to players such as: Clay Burton, Ralph Cooper, A.J. Johnson, Jeoffrey Pagan, Terrance Smith, Tony Steward, and James Vaughters. Coach Paul Johnson stated during the coaching transition that he was less worried about scheme as he was in results. Several of the above recruits along with 2010's Jeremiah Attaochu & Quayshawn Nealy will have a chance to pioneer a new breed of linebackers who will try and lead the defense to new levels of success under Coach Al Groh's 3-4 defense.