Experienced line could be foundation for Georgia Tech's D

ATLANTA -- The first few games of 2014 followed a similar pattern for then-freshman KeShun Freeman. He'd survey the offense, put his hand in the dirt, then look over to Adam Gotsis, his teammate on Georgia Tech's defensive line for help.

"He'd be coaching me up, reminding me that I've got this [blocker] or I need to step that way," Freeman said.

The system worked, more or less.

Freeman racked up 54 tackles -- tops among Tech's D-linemen -- and 4.5 sacks, and he was named to ESPN's true freshman All-America team. He was good and Georgia Tech won 11 games, but there wasn't much sense of satisfaction.

"I had a lot of great plays, but I can go back and point out tons of things I messed up on," Freeman said. "Watching those mistakes carried me into the offseason."

That's been something of a theme for the Georgia Tech defensive line.

A year ago at this time, there were question marks everywhere. The depth chart had been eviscerated by graduation and attrition, leaving Gotsis as the only experienced lineman. He embraced the role, but he was the centerpiece of a patchwork unit. The result: the second-fewest TFLs, the second-highest yards-per-rush allowed, and the second-worst sack rate in the ACC.

"We were a thin group," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "We went through some growing pains and learned some valuable lessons."

But those hard lessons from 2014 are providing a foundation for 2015.

Freeman has watched the film and seen his mistakes, so he spent the offseason improving his footwork and hand placement.

Gotsis was thrust into a leadership role last year, but now it's old hat. He chats about this season's goals, and Freeman simply nods along with each new challenge. Gotsis' words have already been repeated inside the locker room dozens of times.

"Coaches put us in good positions to utilize what we had out there, but we had a lot of young guys playing," Gotsis said. "This year, coming back with an experienced group, that bar has to be set so much higher than what we had it last year. It's an unspoken thing that goes on in the defensive meeting room."

Then there's the return of Jabari Hunt-Days, the linebacker-turned-lineman who sat out last year because of academic issues. He was officially cleared to return to the team this week, and his impact could be significant.

"I've seen him go against our offense and tear it up there, so I'm excited to see him get in a game," Gotsis said. "I think he'll have a great year. And I think he knows that he really has to."

Even the depth is now something of a strength. Patrick Gamble worked at all three down lineman positions last season. Rod Chungong, Antonio Simmons and Kenderius Whitehead all have experience under their belts. They're all competing at practice, and that's something Tech simply didn't have a year ago.

"You throw the freshmen in the mix, and there's more competition," Roof said. "That's not to be confused with having arrived, but I think we're going to be better."

The practical implications of that progress are widespread. Last year, Georgia Tech opened the year hoping to simply avoid catastrophe -- keep plays in front of them, don't make a major mistake. By midseason, it was clear that plan wasn't working, and the pass-rush wasn't getting home. A decision was made to play more aggressively -- more blitzes, more man coverage, more big plays on both sides.

Again, the results were good enough to carry Georgia Tech to an Orange Bowl victory, but Roof still is hoping for significant improvement this year.

"If we can get home with four, that's a good thing," Roof said. "It's tough to play pass defense when the quarterback has time to throw. But it's a combination of everything."

But the first piece of that combination that needs to fall into place is improvement up front, and there's no lack of enthusiasm about what this more experienced unit can do.

Last year was trial by fire. This year, the D-line is better because of it, but they're hoping that's just the beginning.

"We know where we've been, the work it takes to get there, and what we need to put in," Gotsis said. "The football IQ side of things is really improved, and that's the biggest thing. That really helps with an experienced team that understands that."