Jabari Hunt-Days did not make the jump to defensive tackle – one of the most eagerly anticipated tweaks to the look of No. 16 Georgia Tech going into the season – without first checking the landing spot. Hunt-Days played his first two seasons at Tech as a linebacker, accumulating 129 tackles (11.5 for loss) in two seasons. In the spring of 2014, after the departure of All-American defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, coaches tried him out at the “rush” end spot, a more typical transition.
Hunt-Days could still play out in space and demonstrate the playmaking ability he had shown on the linebacker level. After that, however, coaches had another idea – moving him inside to tackle. It is a different world, brawling with guards and centers in a confined space.
Defensive line coach Mike Pelton acknowledged last week that Hunt-Days was “hesitant about it.”
Rather fortuitously for Tech, there was the perfect salesman to make this pitch to Hunt-Days – Pelton. In 1993, as a junior at Auburn, he had made the exact same linebacker-to-tackle transition.
“I know exactly the transition that he did, and it was actually a selling point for him,” Pelton said. “’Hey, I’ve done it, been there, I’ve been there, I’ve done that. And it turned out pretty well for me.’”
As a senior, Pelton bagged 10 sacks and was named All-SEC. He was picked in the fifth round of the NFL draft and had a brief stay in professional football. He has been a defensive line coach since 2000.
“It changed my life,” he said.
Like Hunt-Days, Pelton bulked up to move to tackle, going from 245 pounds to 285 pounds, transitioning, in his words, from a slow linebacker to a fast defensive tackle. That was part of the pitch. Pelton showed Hunt-Days his own game video and sold him on the quickness advantage he would have.
“I just told him, ‘You’re a linebacker used to making plays,’” Pelton said. “I said, ‘When you go down there, you’re a d-tackle with a linebacker vision. Take playmaking to d-tackle.”
As has been noted often, Hunt-Days served on the defensive scout team last fall as he was academically ineligible. Coaches and teammates showered him with praise for his effort and his playmaking, both last fall and in spring practice. Former guard Shaquille Mason said that Hunt-Days was the best defensive lineman he faced all last season and credited him with helping him make All-American. He was named the scout team defensive player of the year.
In the spring, coach Paul Johnson said offensive linemen struggled to stay in front of Hunt-Days because he was so quick off the snap.
While clearly enthused about his pupil, Pelton made the further point that Hunt-Days is still a player in his first year at a position, and also one who hasn’t been in a game since Dec. 2013. As an example, as they returned from missing all or most of the 2013 season due to injuries, safeties Jamal Golden and Isaiah Johnson took several games last season to regain their pre-injury form.
And while he did play defensive tackle on the scout team, Hunt-Days was simply following play cards drawn up for the scout team. He wasn’t playing as part of a scheme, which he is now doing.
“You actually have to go out there and react,” Pelton said. “You’re trying to just slow down the game for him and give him bits and pieces and understand, ‘Hey, man, this game comes in slow increments.’”
Regardless, Hunt-Days, who now carries 290 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, 40 more than he did as a linebacker, is ready for Thursday’s opener against Alcorn State. During the preseason, he likened the 2014 season to being in jail, being kept from “something that you want to do and you can’t do or don’t have the opportunity to do because of yourself and the things that you’ve done to get yourself there, and now you want it back.”
A new chapter begins in earnest Thursday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Perhaps another life will be changed.
“He kind of bought in and he hasn’t looked back,” Pelton said. “I told him it’ll be the most fun he ever had, and he took off from there. Man, he just ran with it.”
Hunt-Days would say the same.
“I can say I kind of miss (linebacker), but I’m loving this defensive-line thing,” he said.