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Young Hurricanes defense hopes to avoid wreck at Georgia Tech

It’s one of those games former Hurricanes cornerback Chavez Grant said he never has forgotten and probably won’t: the night Georgia Tech ran all over him and his teammates.

“It was like a blur,” Grant said of Georgia Tech’s 41-23 win over UM on Nov. 20, 2008 — the night the Yellow Jackets’ spread option offense ran for 472 yards, the second-most allowed in UM history. “You knew what was coming. It was just so hard to stop. Seeing it on the field, it looked so complicated. Then, you watched it on film and it was so simple. Assignment football.

“We just had so many young guys playing who had never seen it before. Sean Spence was a freshman. Marcus Robinson was a freshman. Some guys could get it. Other guys couldn’t. You need all 11 to be on the same page because if one guy is out of place, that’s it. We learned a lot about discipline that night.”

Another lesson could be in store for a different group of young Hurricanes this Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.

UM (2-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) hasn’t lost to the Yellow Jackets (2-1, 1-1) since that Thursday night massacre. But the Hurricanes also haven’t faced Georgia Tech’s freight train of a running game with so many young players on defense since then, a problem made only tougher Tuesday when starting middle linebacker Denzel Perryman (ankle) was officially ruled out for the game.

Of the 25 healthy players on UM’s two-deep defensive roster, only 10 lined up on defense in last year’s 24-7 win over Georgia Tech. Five of them started: defensive end Anthony Chickillo, defensive tackle Darius Smith, linebacker Jimmy Gaines, cornerback Brandon McGee and safety Vaughn Telemaque, who is expected back this week, according to UM coach Al Golden.

Gaines, a 6-3, 230-pound junior who has yet to start this season, is still battling with sophomore Gionni Paul (6-1, 230) to decide who will start in Perryman’s place alongside junior Tyrone Cornelius (6-2, 210) and redshirt freshman Eddie Johnson (6-1, 238). Either way, Golden said the team will rely heavily on Gaines, who was slowed by an ankle injury most of training camp, to provide a lot of leadership.

“This is a game where we need guys like Jimmy Gaines to be smart and keep his poise and get us in the right front, or right call, and — to be honest — bail us out of some things,” Golden said. “When you play this team, ultimately they’re going to give you a few nuances. You have to be able to recognize it and bail us out of it a little bit.”

Georgia Tech ranks third nationally in rushing (374 yards a game), 15th in scoring offense (44 points per game) and 17th in total offense (531.33 yards per game). UM ranks 102nd in run defense (205.67), 89th in scoring defense (31.33) and 100th in total defense (463.33).

Senior quarterback Tevin Washington, who leads the team with 253 yards rushing, 382 yards passing and seven combined touchdowns, looks like a different player than in the past, UM defensive end Shayon Green said. Golden said reserve running back Dallas Crawford has played the role of Washington well in practice.

The Hurricanes have bottled up Washington for the most part each of the past two seasons. Same with the spread option. UM has given up just 179 yards on the ground on average in its past three wins over the Yellow Jackets and won each contest by at least 16 points. Pulling that off again figures to be a monumental task.

“After studying them the last 48 hours, this is a complete team — a very experienced, very mature team,” Golden said. “I think this is the most physical, rugged and strongest offensive line that they’ve had.”

Unlike in years past, the Hurricanes haven’t spent extra time preparing for the Yellow Jackets either.

“I know in years past we’ve usually started looking at Georgia Tech in camp, just to see it, recognize,” cornerback Brandon McGee said. “We honestly could not do that this time because we had so many young guys. But I don’t think it will affect us much. We’re not totally foreign to it. The coaches have prepared us for it.”

Saturday’s game will be a homecoming for three starters on defense: Green (Tifton County, Ga.), Cornelius (Stone Mountain, Ga.) and Johnson (North Atlanta). Getting embarrassed in front of family and friends isn’t part of the plan.

“I don’t see it as a trip home. I see it as a business trip,” said Johnson, who ranks third on the team with 15 tackles. “Yeah, it’s true I’m going back home. But I’m going to Georgia just to get this victory.”

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