Senior safeties return for Tech’s tough pass defense
Team will start cornerbacks with no full-time experience
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.”