The common theme among the defensive backs is seniority. When the Jackets take the field on September 3rd against Alcorn State, they will trot out four seniors along their back line, three of those of the redshirt variety. The cornerbacking duo will have one more season to add to a great collection of memories.
Even though the defense gave up a lot of yards in 2014, the ballhawking skills of the back line to create turnovers helped keep points off the board. The experience of the team this season should help to force more three and outs and the defense will hopefully not have to rely on forcing turnovers to keep them in games.
Last year’s nickel and third corner Demond Smith has shifted over to strong safety to replace the hard hitting Isaiah Johnson. That leaves a void in the nickel position, and camp has brought two promising players gunning for that spot. The aptly named Joe Speed, defensive backs coach, should have a fun season coaching up a great group of players.
Projected starters: D.J. White and Chris Milton
White will be immortalized for clinching a victory in the 2014 edition of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate. Let us remember once more.
White had three more key interceptions, including one in the Virginia Tech game to set Georgia Tech up for the winning field goal and a pick-6 in the NC State contest. He also added 66 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss and 8 passes defensed, most on the team.
DJ White is a prototypical lockdown corner with atypical blazing speed. That athleticism allows him to stay with any opposing wide receiver or even chase down Heisman candidate running backs. He’s also been called a “film room junkie”, relentlessly studying wide receivers to pick up on any small tips to win the matchup.
White matches the physicality of the position with the IQ and awareness needed as offenses become more and more uptempo and spread out. There is no doubt about it. This is a special player who, barring a major setback, will play football on Sundays after this fall.
Chris Milton is yet another example of a former quarterback Paul Johnson’s crew has molded into a stud at a different position. He played that position in high school but landed in Atlanta as a safety and special teamer. Milton would slide over to play cornerback in 2014 after the graduation of Louis Young and has never looked back.
Chris logged 25 tackles, 2 big interceptions and 4 passes defensed in 2014. Like White, he stands in at 5’11” and 190 lbs., but the big thing separating him and his mate in the backfield is consistency. If he can find that in his redshirt senior season, he and White will form one of the most formidable cornerbacking duos not just in the ACC but also the nation.
Key backups: Lynn Griffin, Lawrence Austin, Stepheny Durham
Lawrence Austin and Lynn Griffin are reportedly locked in a tight battle for nickelback duties. Thankfully that is on a gridiron and not maintaining the team’s practice song playlist. Nevertheless, Griffin, at 6’0″ and 197 lbs., has great size for an outside corner spot. However, his fit as a large nickel corner may be a bit more difficult when being tasked to defend shifty slot receivers.
Lawrence Austin, twin brother of safety Lance, at 5’9″ is perfectly suited for the nickel role. Lawrence played both running back and ran track in high school and he shows that closeout speed on the field. He played in all 14 games last season as a true freshman, making 11 tackles, a pick, a pass defensed and a forcing a fumble.
My guess is we see a size-based platoon, with Griffin combating opposing tight ends and Austin across from slot receivers. No matter who wins this starting-ish role, both will see the field on various third downs and occasionally rotating in at outside cornerback.
Stepheny “Step” Durham is a 4-star (ESPN and Rivals) recruit in the 2014 class from the Jacksonville, Fla. area. There’s real reason why so much hype surrounds this young kid. His high school tape shows him zipping around the field and lighting up players with physical tackles. It’s a shame Step is blocked by two seniors starting ahead of him but his day will come and there’s no reason to believe he won’t shine at that time.
The future of the position in 2016 will most likely hold Griffin and Durham on the outside with Lawrence Austin at nickel. With seasoned veterans White and Milton showing the young guys the ropes, there’s reason for optimism in both the present and the future.
Next for Friday: Safety