How talented was Tech’s 2012 defense?

By the NFL’s evaluation, at least, the 2012 Georgia Tech defense was pretty stout.

Of the 11 starters, all nine players who have completed their Tech careers were either drafted (three) or were signed as undrafted free agents (six). That doesn’t even include a seventh player, Euclid Cummings, who primarily backed up at defensive end and signed an undrafted free-agent deal with Tampa Bay.

Further, it’s hardly a stretch to surmise that the other two starters who have yet to finish their careers – Jabari Hunt-Days and Quayshawn Nealy – will themselves get a chance at the NFL. So could 2012 backups Adam Gotsis, Jamal Golden and others.

A few caveats: Getting drafted or signed to a rookie free-agent deal is not the final judgment on a player’s worth. A-back Robert Godhigh did not reach a deal Saturday, though his agent was hopeful that he will get a shot with the Falcons. It would be hard to argue that he was not one of the six best players, let alone seniors, on last year’s team.

The NFL, like college teams, gets it wrong plenty, and often players are signed more on potential than for production in college. Further, the games are different, and a player may not necessarily “translate” to the NFL level.

Also, getting drafted carries far more significance than getting signed as an undrafted free agent, and getting drafted early even more so, and it would obviously mean more if it were six draftees and three undrafted rather than the other way around.

Still, getting signed or drafted into the NFL – whose teams scour the country and collectively commit dozens of scouts to finding the players deemed most capable of playing football at a professional level – is obviously a strong endorsement.

So, what can be said about the 2012 defense? It didn’t play like a team with 10 or more players that would sign NFL contracts. It ranked No. 43 in total defense (374.0 yards per game), 74th in yards per play (5.69) and tied for 65th in scoring defense (28.3 points per game). As a result, defensive coordinator Al Groh was fired after the sixth game of the season after the Jackets gave up 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time in school history.

Under interim coordinator Charles Kelly, the unit improved, in some ways decisively. The team gave up 30.2 points per game in the first six games and 26.9 in the last eight. Third-down conversion rate fell from 50.9 to 38.2 percent. The defense sacked the opposing quarterback once every 12.5 plays in the final eight games after a rate of one per 22.5 plays in the first six.

It was not a 180-degree change. BYU, North Carolina and Georgia all scored north of 40 (the Cougars and Tar Heels scored on defensive touchdowns). But overall the performance was better and more indicative of the talent on the roster. (For what it’s worth, of the UNC starting 11 on offense, five were drafted and three more signed undrafted free-agent deals. That includes two top-10 picks, tight end Eric Ebron and guard Jonathan Cooper. Of the remaining three, two are still in school and the third appears to be receiving a tryout.)

Of recent defenses, from a pure draft standpoint, the 2008 defense would easily get the nod over the 2012 unit. It had an eventual first-round pick (defensive end Derrick Morgan), two third-rounders (end Michael Johnson and safety Morgan Burnett) and two seventh-rounders (tackles Darryl Richard and Vance Walker). Defensive backs Jahi Word-Daniels and Mario Butler and linebacker Brad Jefferson were signed as undrafted free agents. That’s five draftees and three undrafted free agents, including three in the first three rounds.

The 2012 Tech defensive starters

DE Izaan Cross – signed with the Buffalo Bills as an UDFA in 2013, was briefly on the practice squad

DT T.J. Barnes – signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an UDFA in 2013, was cut, signed to the New York Jets practice squad, now on Jets roster

DE Emmuel Dieke – signed with New York Giants as UDFA Saturday

OLB Jeremiah Attaochu – drafted in second round by San Diego Chargers Friday

ILB Quayshawn Nealy – three-year starter going into senior season

ILB Jabari Hunt-Days –two-year starter, but academically ineligible

OLB Brandon Watts – drafted in seventh round by Minnesota Saturday

CB Rod Sweeting – signed with New Orleans Saints as UDFA, made roster

CB Louis Young – signed with Denver Broncos as UDFA Saturday

S Jemea Thomas – drafted in sixth round by New England Patriots Saturday

S Isaiah Johnson – two-year starter going into senior season after redshirting last season (ACL surgery)

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