Although Ted Roof’s group will show a standard base 4-3 defense for most plays, in big situations like third and long, the team will line up in a nickel package by subbing a nickel corner for the inside linebacker. With spread offenses becoming more and more the standard in FBS play, defenses have to be able to cover more ground, so having speed in the back half of the defense will be key.
While the departed Quayshawn Nealy played inside linebacker, he stayed on the field for virtually every nickel situation as well last year. The secondary figures to have 4 seniors starting, so there has been nothing to indicate a reduction in 4-2-5 lineups. For that reason, only two guys will be highlighted as starters as probable three down players.
Projected starters: P.J. Davis and Tyler Marcordes
Paul “P.J.” Davis came into his own last year, leading the Jackets with an astounding 119 tackles from the weakside linebacker position, including 82 solo tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. He also had a much needed pick-6 in a tight game versus Virginia Tech. His 119 tackles were the second most by a Jacket since at least 2005 (as far back as Sports-Reference keeps track of tackles), second to a 2012 season when Julian Burnett had 120. Davis flies around the field with evil intentions, coming around the edge to stop offensive backs in their tracks. Davis is a special player the Jackets haven’t seen in their linebacking core in a while and will be counted on to lead a young group behind him.
Marcordes was often the one the leave the field on third downs last season. Still, after playing in every game, including 7 starts, and totalling 31 tackles and 7.5 sacks or tackles for loss, he should be able to leverage that play into looks on third down. Listed at 6’4″ and 237 lbs. from Normal, Ill., Marcordes has an eye for being in the right place at the right time. For a defense that needs to see some improvement from allowing 6.32 yards per play last season, a leap from Marcordes could be a big step toward accomplishing that.
Key backups: Beau Hankins, Terrell Lewis, Dominique Noble, Chase Alford
With the graduation of Nealy and the awkward transfer to Florida of Anthony Harrell, Hankins figures to take over as the inside linebacker starter. As a result, he will probably only play first and second downs. Still, the RS junior played in all 14 games last season as the only returning MLB, so his experience will place him first on the list of options there.
Noble started his Georgia Tech career as a safety before putting on some weight to get to 230 lbs., so we may see him play a hybrid inside linebacker/strong safety role. Noble has played sporadically in his career but he has a chance to win the ILB spot over Hankins at some point and see regular time. He won’t be the next Troy Polamalu, and may only see time at the weakside LB spot as listed on a post-spring depth chart, but has a serious chance to contribute as a redshirt senior.
Terrell Lewis is a sophomore who attended Ocoee High School in Florida. He played a litany of positions in high school, but as a backup linebacker in college, will have to show awareness and aggression to earn time on the field. Chase Alford, a walk on for two seasons, was just put on scholarship a few weeks before the opener against Alcorn State. He has the flexibility to move around multiple linebacker positions.
As I briefly touched on earlier this week, I think we will also see Tyler Stargel and Antonio Simmons rush some from a stand up position as opposed to having a hand on the ground.
Like the defensive front, there is a lot of potential in this group. P.J. Davis has a legitimate shot at becoming a household name with his range and help turn this defense into a top ACC unit.