By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
If one is to ask Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson about his offense the last couple of years, he is quick to answer any question without hesitation. There is a good reason for that.
The Yellow Jackets have been one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best offensive teams for the last five years under Johnson, including last year when they finished fourth in the league after averaging 441.1 yards and 33.6 points per game. The running game has always been Johnson signature style thanks to his spread-option offense.
Georgia Tech has led the ACC in rushing every season since Johnson took over in 2008, and last season they averaged 311.2 yards per outing, which ranked fourth nationally, and was 105 yards more per game than second place Florida State.
But as open as Johnson is about his offense, he is not exactly that way with his defense. The Yellow Jackets have actually been just the opposite on the defensive side of the ball. Last year, the Jackets gave up 374 yards and 28.3 points per outing.
It was so bad at one point Johnson parted ways with former defensive coordinator Al Groh—who served as the head coach at Virginia for nine seasons prior to—at the midway point of the season.
“The last few years are over, so I don’t want to talk about that,” Johnson said recently. “It is done. Clearly everybody has their own style of coaching, and Ted’s probably closely resembles mind.
“Let’s just leave it at that.”
Ted is former Duke head coach Ted Roof, who was the Blue Devils’ head coach from 2003-’07 before being let go. The last six years he has had stints as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, Central Florida and Penn State.
Roof’s defenses are known to gamble and be more aggressive, something Johnson’s teams have not done too much of in the past. Roof has ditched Groh’s 3-4, bend-but-don’t-break scheme and replaced it with an aggressive 4-3 style that players like defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu are enjoying.
“We will be more aggressive,” the senior said. “The 3-4 is more of a read-and-react type of thing. I will say we will be more aggressive than anything. That’s really why we moved more to a 4-3 is to be more aggressive and I think that is what we are going to do.”
Attaochu, who is on the Chuck Bednarik Award watch list, will now play the more traditional defensive end position instead of playing as an outside backer which is how he was used in the 3-4 scheme. However, Roof is giving him the freedom to freelance and play the position in two ways, depending on what the offense is doing.
“I can do both. I’m excited about that,” Attaochu said. “I’m lined up as a defensive end, but I can still stand up and rush the passer, which basically is what a 3-4 outside linebacker is. It is just a defensive end that stands up, rushes the passer and can drop into coverage.
“I still have that freedom to stand up and rush the passer or put my hand down. They kind of offer two kinds of ways to rush the passer, you can use more leverage with your hand down. Standing up, you can rush with more speed so it is good to be able to do both because you can catch offensive linemen off guard.”
Johnson and Attaochu say the verdict is still out on how much they have improved as a unit because they have nothing to go by.
“It’s hard to single out improvements because we have not played anybody,” Johnson said. “But I think the general attitude of the players and the staff is positive. I think there is a lot of energy and the guys feel like they are more involved and that kind of thing.
“We will see. You still have to play the games.”
“I have played in the 3-4 the last four years so we will see if it does,” Attaochu said. “We have a lot of guys at linebacker and I was a part of that depth. So with me moving to defensive end, it allows us to put more men on the field with talent like Brandon Watts, Quayshawn Nealy and Jabari Hunt-Days all at the same time.
“I’m excited to see how that is going to work.”
Watts, one of the fastest players on the team, is someone everyone seems ready to watch. He is coming back from off-season toe surgery and Attaochu says the senior linebacker is ready to have a breakout season.
“He just has to really put it together,” the Yellow Jackets’ defensive end said. “He had his toe surgery and had a toe problem last year so now he is healthy, fresh and ready to go. He has a lot of natural ability so it is about time for him to put it to work.”
Johnson can’t wait to see Watts back at work.
“I think Brandon could really be a breakout player for us,” Tech’s head coach said. “He is a guy that has a lot of athletic ability. He missed spring practice with an injury, but he has played a lot of football for us, and we need him to have a good year. He is a very talented young man.”
And if Georgia Tech’s defense can finally start matching the level of its offense, then the rest of the ACC could be in trouble. But like Johnson said, “we will just have to wait and see.”