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Young secondary leading Tech D
Yellow Jackets have four INTs through two games

ATLANTA - Since Paul Johnson was hired as Georgia Tech's football coach last December, much of the talk among the media and fans surrounding how the team would take to his option-based spread offense.

And when talk turned to the defense, most of it focused on the how strong the Yellow Jackets front four would be with the return of preseason All-ACC selections Michael Johnson and Vance Walker, plus veterans Darryl Richard and Derrick Morgan.

The secondary was seen as a potential weakness, with nine of the 12 players listed on Tech's three-deep depth chart at the defensive back positions being either freshmen or sophomores.

Given the performance of the Tech secondary in the first two games, that notion may need to be rethought.

The Jackets have not only produced four interceptions so far, good for seventh in the nation, but also rank 25th nationally in pass defense, giving up an average of just 139 yards per game through the air.

The secondary's biggest challenge may be yet to come as the Jackets travels to Blacksburg, Va., to take on Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Still, the steadiness of a young group of defensive backs has not been lost on Johnson.

"Our guys have done a good job back there for the most part, and not being scared," Johnson said. "You can't play scared back there. You can't play with 25-yard cushions and hope they can't catch it or that they drop it. For young guys, they've been up there challenging."

The ones doing the most challenging in the Tech secondary have often been among the youngest players.

Sophomore rover Morgan Burnett is the Jackets' team leader with 14 total tackles and two interceptions. Fellow sophomores Mario

Butler (five tackles and an interception) and Dominique Reese (eight tackles) also start and are among the team leaders.

And perhaps the biggest surprises have come from true freshman Cooper Taylor (fourth on the team with nine tackles) and Rashaad Reid (three tackles, interception), who seem to be playing above their perceived experience level.

Not bad for an area that was supposed to be among Tech's weakest links coming into this season - talk the young Jackets definitely heard.

"Yeah, we (the defense) felt a little chip on our shoulders, especially in the secondary," said Butler, who saw action in 12 of Tech's 13 games as a freshman last year. "A lot of people think we're the (team's) weak spot. But if we come out and do what we need to do, a lot more people will respect us.

"We still have some things to improve on, but I think we've done a pretty good job so far."

As good as the young secondary has been, it hasn't done its job alone.

As Johnson is quick to point out, the pressure the Jackets' more veteran line has been able to apply to opposing quarterbacks has helped the youngsters grow into the job.

"Pass defense is a combination of a lot of things," Johnson said. "We've gotten good pressure up front. If you look at ... the pass interceptions (last Saturday against Boston College), there was tremendous pressure. ... If you're going to play good pass defense, you've got to get pressure on the quarterback."

A good pass rush will also be a must as Tech faces a formidable challenge Saturday at Virginia Tech.

Hokies quarterback Sean Glennon scorched the Jackets for 22 completions on 33 attempts for 296 yards and two touchdowns in last year's 27-3 win at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

And with Glennon sharing time with athletic sophomore Tyrod Taylor (Virginia Tech's leading rusher with 112 yards on 14 carries), Butler knows he and his teammates will have to be on their toes Saturday.

"The biggest thing for us is we have to be in the right space to make plays," Butler said. "We improved from Week 1 to Week 2, and we'll try to continue that trend in Week 3. We need to pick something to improve upon and do it."

SideBar: Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Blacksburg, Va.

TV/Radio: ABC/790-AM