Jon Cooper | The Good Word -
Youth can be a double-edged sword.
On one side, there’s a lack of game experience.
On the other is the exuberance and energy youngsters bring -- a hunger to learn and an eagerness to be molded to fit.
Such is the sword being wielded by Georgia Tech’s defensive line heading into the 2017 season.
“We have a lot of inexperience, a lot of guys who are going to get their first taste of what it’s like to go out there and start a game and win a big game for us,” said defensive line coach Mike Pelton. “So we have our work cut out for us up front. They understand that. Every day they come in I tell them, ‘Do what I do. Put your ego in the trash and let’s go to work.'”
That trash can is filled with the egos of only two players that made starts up front last season -- senior end KeShun Freeman (13 starts in '16) and junior tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson (seven starts in '16). But as fall camp began, the cupboard was anything but bear.
“I think we’ll probably play by committee on the defensive line,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “Antonio Simmons and KeShun Freeman both [played in] a bunch of games at end. You’ve got Anree Saint-Amour, who I think has had a really good off-season, who I look for to do some things this year. Desmond Branch has moved inside, Kyle Cerge-Henderson [is also inside]. Brandon Adams has dropped some weight, we need to get something out of Brentavious Glanton. There’ll probably be several of those guys playing there. Hopefully somebody will step to the forefront. We certainly need to get some pressure on the passer, more than we have in the last couple of years.”
The Yellow Jackets would like to improve the push up front from last season, when they recorded 18 sacks as a team in 13 games (although 10 of those came over the past four contests).
Freeman expects that late-season momentum to carry into this season.
“I can say this, our group is well-conditioned,” said Freeman. “Guys like Kyle Cerge-Henderson, Brandon Adams, have been working really hard in the off-season to get the weight down, get a little more conditioned. Guys will be able to move a little better. We’re excited about that.”
The experienced secondary also offers potential for a greater number of coverage sacks.
“We’re excited about that, too,” Freeman said. “Having them back and them having so much game play, that’s going to help us because with them covering, it’s going to give us more time to rush. With us rushing, we may force the quarterback to throw it and they’ll get those picks. So we’re pretty much working off each other.”
The Jackets begin camp with 17 defensive linemen on their roster, comprising nearly a 50/50 split between eight of players with on-field experience last season, and nine looking for it -- four true freshmen and five redshirt freshmen.
“We’re always trying to find depth. Some of the young guys have an opportunity to get in that fifth spot,” said Pelton. “They’re working right now. You separate the men from the boys when the pads go on.”
Returners Freeman (a three-year starter), Cerge-Henderson and Simmons (who has played in all but one game over the past two years) are expected to anchor the line and fill three of the starting spots.
But starting isn’t everything and Simmons likes the versatility of the group.
“It’s good this year because everybody’s different,” said Simmons, who’s coming in at a leaner 246 pounds. “KeShun is KeShun. Des is different from Pat [Gamble] and Adam [Gotsis] because Pat and Adam were real big guys. Des is not that big but he’s a great finesse-type of guy. He uses his hands really well. I love pass-rushing with Des because he opens me up well. Kyle has gotten way better because he knows what type of rusher he is. Everybody brings something different to the table. Anree (Saint-Amour) has gotten way way better and then Brandon [Adams] and Brentavious [Glanton], everybody’s doing their part. I think we’re going to be real deep this year and it will help out everybody.”
For right now, those with experience are helping those without. That’s a role Cerge-Henderson is eager to play.
“My first two seasons, I played under Adam and Pat, guys like that. I learned from them,” said Cerge-Henderson, who has dedicated himself to creating more sacks and fighting off double-teams this season. “Now I’m stepping into the roles they were doing. Everybody leads differently but I’m taking things that I learned from them and showing the other guys.”
Among those being taught the ropes is a talented quartet of freshmen that have already impressed.
“The four freshmen that we have on the defensive line -- Josh Tukes, Cortez Alston, Antwan Owens and Kelton Dawson -- those guys have been working out really hard,” said Freeman, who recalled the extensive summer workouts at the Brock Center. “They’re a really strong freshman class. I’m excited to see what they do in pads [and] to see, if some of them have to play, what we’re going to get with them.”
Regardless of who winds up on the field, last season’s strong finish has the defense front excited for 2017.
A strong season certainly means a lot to Freeman and Simmons, who are making their last go-round for the Jackets.
“I’ve been thinking about it. I want to do something great my last year so everybody can remember me because my first three years haven’t been as I wanted,” said Simmons. “My first goal? I want to be ACC Defensive Player of the Year. The second goal is just have a lot of sacks because I know my past couple of years, I’ve had a lot of hurries. I want to lead the team in sacks and tackles for loss. I want to be very productive on the field.
“I’m embracing the leadership role,” he added. “I love everything that comes with it. I’m enjoying teaching the young guys so we all can be on the same page.”
“I’ve been starting for four years now. I’m excited going into my senior season to see what’s to come,” said Freeman. “I’ve been working so hard in the offseason. I’m just ready to get back on the field with my brothers. This is a great time. I have a lot of energy, a lot of excitement. I’m ready to just learn more and do more.”
Included in the "do more" -- getting a home win over Georgia for the first time in the seniors' careers.
“We beat them last year on their turf. Since I’ve been in college, I haven’t beaten them at home,” he said. “I really want to win that game at home, so that’s one I’m really looking forward to.”
Before they can look that far ahead, they must prepare for the opener against Tennessee at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That allows three weeks for the D-line to wrap up the bonding process and put it all together.
“We’re trying to find consistent people to do what we ask them to do and play hard and give us a chance to play a football game,” Pelton said. “We’ve got some guys in the mix. They’ve got to continue to work, continue to grow. By no means are we close to where we need to be but they’re working and they’re trying and they're trying to lead.”