Brad Jefferson returned from an undisclosed injury to practice in limited fashion Wednesday, which suggests that Georgia Tech’s leading tackler will start Saturday against Virginia. There will nonetheless almost certainly be a change at inside linebacker.
Sophomore Julian Burnett – who began the season off the two-deep depth chart — will become the third player in the first six games to start inside next to Jefferson.
Junior Kyle Jackson started the first two games, redshirt freshman Brandon Watts the next three.
Burnett’s playing time has increased since he began the season on third string, and after replacing Watts early last Saturday at Wake Forest he registered 10 combined tackles and assists to tie outside linebacker Steven Sylvester for the team lead against the Demon Deacons.
That moved him into a tie for eighth on the team with cornerback Mario Butler and end Jason Peter with 20. Jefferson leads with 32, Watts has 18 and Jackson eight.
Burnett does not have the stature of a prototypical 3-4 inside linebacker, which would be about 6-feet-3, 255 pounds. He’s 5-10, 222, but speed, a low center of gravity that helps him get under and off of blocks and other intangibles help make up for the fact he doesn’t block out the sun.
“Julian is a linebacker by nature and he brings a certain tenacity to the game,” said inside linebackers coach Joe Speed. “He always plays at about 100 mph and he doesn’t care what’s in his way or how big it is; he’s going to hit it. He’s got good eyes, good vision, good quickness and his attitude is to compete.”
Burnett also is authoritative when communicating with fellow linebackers and the defensive linemen. That’s important enough to defensive coordinator Al Groh that if a player considered physically superior among inside linebackers is a poor communicator, that player might not start.
“That might be the case because if we don’t have 11 men going in the right direction we’ll fail as a defense,” Speed said. “The main thing is whoever steps up has to be able to communicate and get the other people lined up around them. It needs to be a seamless transition.”
Will Jackson’s sprained left ankle kept him from practicing Wednesday, and redshirt freshman Jay Finch – who has been the backup center – is likely to start in Jackson’s place at left guard.
Nick McRae started the Kansas game in place of Jackson, and replaced him early at Wake, but struggled.
Coach Paul Johnson said Finch would remain the backup to Sean Bedford at center.
– Matt Winkeljohn, for the AJC