Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh doesn’t so much shower praise as he does leak it. However, midway through the Yellow Jackets’ preseason camp, he was showing inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy video clips from a recent practice and speaking with appreciation.
As Nealy recounted it, Groh told him that Nealy had been playing more physically, taking on running backs head on and delivering hits.
“I just like the way you’re playing,” Nealy said Groh told him.
Besides lifting Nealy’s confidence, the meeting demonstrated the connection developing between the sophomore and his defensive coordinator. In Nealy, Tech has a player in a leadership position who has become a Groh follower and appears ready to make a jump in performance.
“He takes all the information you give him and he tries to use it,” Groh said. “He sees that it works, so he comes back for more, so he’s always looking for more and then he’s trying to put it into play. He’s fun to go out there with every day.”
Nealy’s ascension would help fill the chasm left by former inside linebacker Julian Burnett, whose Sun Bowl neck injury ended his career. Burnett twice led the Yellow Jackets in tackles and inspired teammates with his passion and energy. Nealy makes no claim to replacing Burnett, but has begun to assume a leadership position.
It will be no small matter in the team’s opener at Virginia Tech Sept. 3. Inside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days, starting in place of the suspended Daniel Drummond, will be playing in the first game of his career.
“He usually doesn’t have that much to say, but he’s a big factor on our defense,” inside linebackers coach Joe Speed said of Nealy. “He’ll be leaned on a little bit.”
Nealy started seven games last year as a freshman, making 52 tackles. Most memorably, he intercepted a pass in the Sun Bowl and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown. Going into the spring, one of the goals Groh set for him was to rely less on his speed and to take on guards and backs with full force.
A tenet of Groh’s scheme is for defenders to build a wall along the line of scrimmage, filling gaps and staying in assigned spots to force running plays sideways. Nealy’s style, using his speed to run around blocks rather than take them on, was not conducive to wall building. Given that guards can outweigh him by 70 pounds, this is not an unreasonable tactic.
Nealy had to change his thinking, he said, “just put it in your mind you have to do this every play and build a wall.”
He also re-fashioned his physique, putting about 10 pounds of muscle onto his frame, now 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, to make him better able to withstand the collisions along the line. In fall camp, Nealy showed coaches that he had advanced in his familiarity with Groh’s defense and his commitment to it. The expectations of significant playing time and improved performance have accelerated his buy-in.
“That’s why I took the initiative to go up there (to the coaches’ offices) and meet with Coach Groh a lot and build that bond,” Nealy said. “I mean, if I see something going wrong out there on the field that he can’t see, I want to be able to go to him and let him know.”
Nealy spoke on Tuesday afternoon, following practice. He was, he said, on his way to Groh’s office to square away a problem he was having with his assignment in defending the run.
“He makes time for all the players, not just me,” Nealy said. “That’s what’s really great. You’ve just got to be willing to go up there and take the coaching.”
After a withering practice, he was coming back for more.
Thanks for reading.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog