Se­nior safeties re­turn for Tech’s tough pass de­fense

Team will start corner­backs with no full-time ex­pe­ri­ence

The Covington News - - SPORTS - Charles Odum

AT­LANTA — Chan Gai­ley spoke with op­ti­mism this month about the ex­pe­ri­ence pro­vided by three se­nior safeties “who have been very good play­ers.”

When the coach moved on to talk about Ge­or­gia Tech’s corner­backs, his tone changed.

“The cor­ners are some­thing else,” Gai­ley said.

The safeties — re­turn­ing starters Ja­mal Lewis and Djay Jones and an­other ex­pe­ri­enced se­nior, Joe Gas­ton — are es­tab­lished.

No cor­ner­back has been a full-time starter, but they do have sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ence.

Jahi Word-Daniels, a ju­nior, started five games last sea­son. Avery Rober­son was a part-time starter last year who played free safety this spring and now is back at cor­ner­back. Pat Clark, a se­nior, started four games last sea­son af­ter mov­ing from re­ceiver.

Gai­ley has seen flashes from each of the three top cor­ners. It’s just that none have taken a start­ing job and held it for a sea­son. Now two _ prob­a­bly Word-Daniels and Rober­son _ have that chance.

Gai­ley gave the cor­ners a good re­view af­ter Thurs­day’s prac­tice.

“I feel very good about our two start­ing cor­ners,” Gai­ley said. “Jahi and Avery are com­ing along well. They haven’t ar­rived, don’t get me wrong, but they are com­ing along very well. I think we’re get­ting closer.”

Word- Daniels says Tech fans shouldn’t worry about cor­ner­back be­ing a prob­lem area this sea­son.

“Nei­ther one of us have ever started the whole way through­out the full sea­son at cor­ner, but we all have enough game ex­pe­ri­ence and we’ve had a good spring and we’re hav­ing a good fall camp,” Word-Daniels said. “There’s no rea­son for any­body to think cor­ner is go­ing to be our weak link this year.

“I think we’re ready for what­ever teams have to throw at us.”

The sec­ondary has a tough act to fol­low. Tech ranked ninth in the na­tion in pass de­fense last sea­son. Jones led the unit with four in­ter­cep­tions. Lewis had three.

The only lost start­ing de­fen­sive back was cor­ner­back Kenny Scott, but the unit has gained Gas­ton, who was a pro­jected start­ing safety be­fore suf­fer­ing a sea­son- end­ing knee in­jury in the 2006 spring prac­tice.

Af­ter Gas­ton suf­fered the in­jury, Lewis moved from cor­ner­back to strong safety and was named a first-team All-At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence player.

Lewis and the other se­nior safeties are lead­ers in the sec­ondary.

“Our safeties kind of an­chor us back there and keep us set­tled,” said Word-Daniels. “It’s good hav­ing lead­ers back there so if you mess up there’s al­ways a guy there to help you out. I think it helps to keep us all grounded and keep us all fo­cused.”

It also helps Gai­ley as he pre­pares for the Sept. 1 opener at Notre Dame.

“You can never dis­count how valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence is,” Gai­ley said. “It is so valu­able, es­pe­cially when you are play­ing in big ball­games in cru­cial sit­u­a­tions. It is very im­por­tant.”

Added Gai­ley: “The com­mu­ni­ca­tion has been very clean through­out camp back there. There have been some mis­steps, but for the most part it has been very clean.”

Gas­ton said he has made a full re­cov­ery from his re­con­struc­tive knee surgery and is start­ing in pack­ages that call

for five or six de­fen­sive backs. Lewis and Jones are the start­ing safeties in Tech’s base de­fense.

“At first it was tough in what was sup­posed to be my se­nior year, hurt­ing my knee and when we went to the ACC cham­pi­onship I had to just sit there and watch,” Gas­ton said of the 2006 sea­son. “I was happy for them and it moti- vated me to work harder to get back this year.”

Con­trary to re­ports, Gas­ton was not in­volved in the play that led to a fight in Tech’s scrim­mage on Satur­day. Quar­ter­back Tay­lor Ben­nett, who was not sup­posed to be blocked or tack­led, talked af­ter the scrim­mage about telling Gas­ton to “Stop, stop, stop” as the safety moved in for a hit. Ben­nett says he was re­fer­ring to a play ear­lier in the scrim­mage, and Tech coaches con­firmed Gas­ton was not in­volved in the con­tact with Ben­nett that led to the fight.

Notes: Fresh­man re­ceiver D.J. Don­ley con­tin­ues to im­press coaches, and he made the play of the day Thurs­day with a one-handed catch on the side­line. The 6-foot4 Don­ley seems des­tined to earn com­par­isons with for­mer Tech star Calvin John­son, who made sim­i­lar ac­ro­batic catches the last three years. “When you see that catch, you say ‘We have seen catches like that around here be­fore,’” Gai­ley said. “Now if you put some­body in the same cat­e­gory (as John­son) be­cause of one catch, then you are mak­ing the mis­take. We cer­tainly are not and even D.J. wouldn’t do that.”

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