This likely doesn’t rate as much of a surprise, but Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof plans to bring an aggressive approach to scheming and play-calling this season.
The Yellow Jackets pulled back in their approach at the start of last season, in part because of a number of new starters and also (perhaps not unrelatedly) due to a slew of big plays to start the year. (You may remember a 92-yard touchdown run by Wofford in the season opener, a 61-yard touchdown pass by Tulane in the second game and a barrage of big gains by Georgia Southern. If you don’t remember, I imagine Roof does, in excruciating detail.)
It was after the North Carolina defeat that Roof, likely with a nudge from coach Paul Johnson, reverted to a more risk-loving approach. It helped catalyze the stunning stretch of 19 takeaways in the final seven games.
With eight starters returning, two previously ineligible players back in the fold and more non-starters with playing experience challenging for playing time, Roof has a sufficient pool of players with a deep bank of knowledge to install his defense at a quicker pace than last preseason.
“Right now through camp, we’ve been flying through,” linebacker Tyler Marcordes said at media day. “We’ve already put in new stuff. We’re just so much further along than we were last year.”
The talent level and depth, it would appear, should enable Roof to play the aggressive style more to his liking.
“We’re going to call it how we need to call it,” Roof said. But, “we’ll go into the games now thinking being aggressive.”
The Jackets, as has been mentioned often, do need to improve. Tech was among the least efficient defenses in the country last season aside from its stunning proclivity for takeaways. The Jackets were 125th out of 128 teams in forcing 3-and-outs (13.2 percent of the time) and 95th in points per drive (2.48), according to fbsdrivestats.com (which only uses games against FBS opponents). In Tech’s defense, Tech’s turnover binge likely ate slightly into its poor three-and-out rate. The Jackets were first by a wide margin in turnover percentage, 22.3 percent. (Remarkably, by percentage points, the second-place team, TCU, was closer to 11th place than it was to Tech.)
As Johnson put it at media day, “We won the Orange Bowl by two touchdowns. We also set an Orange Bowl record for passing yards against us and total yards. You can’t live like that forever.”
With a rising edge rusher in KeShun Freeman and a pocket closer in Adam Gotsis (and perhaps Jabari Hunt-Days), Roof has at least two experienced and capable pieces to fulfill his preference to rush the passer with four down linemen and not depend on blitz help. Further, he has more depth available on the line, which should keep players fresher deeper into games.
It was a factor in the 2013 season, Roof’s first, when Tech had a solid foursome in Jeremiah Attaochu, Emmanuel Dieke, Euclid Cummings and Gotsis (the first three signed NFL contracts and Gotsis almost certainly will do likewise). It helped the Jackets rank 18th in yards per rush – 3.57, 1.5 yards better than the 2014 rate. But the line lacked backups who could play effectively in its stead, a factor in late-game collapses against Miami and Georgia.
Georgia Tech, points per quarter in 2013
Depth in place
Patrick Gamble is expected to play at end and tackle. Rod Rook-Chungong should be a steady force at end. Coaches hope that Francis Kallon can contribute at tackle. Antonio Simmons, Tyler Merriweather, Kenderius Whitehead and Tyler Stargel could play at one or both end spots. First-year freshman Anree Saint-Amour appears to be a possibility to play this fall behind Freeman at rush end.
“I do think the depth has increased,” said Roof, speaking of the defense generally. “We’ve got to continue to keep developing depth, because that’s the difference between a lot of good teams and great teams. But we’ve got a long ways to go.”
The ideal for Tech would be to significantly improve overall while maintaining the turnover proficiency. Third-down defense, where Tech was 114th at 46.1 percent, is a priority. It bears mention, though, that Tech was 29-for-75 (38.7 percent) in its final six games. All six teams were in the top half of the country in offensive third-down conversion rate.
“To get better, we have to be good on first and second down, because more than likely, if the team has third-and-1, third-and-2, the percentage of them converting is really high,” safety Jamal Golden said. “First and second down really helps with how you play on third down. That’s one of our main focuses.”
If it isn’t Alcorn State or Tulane, Notre Dame could provide the Yellow Jackets their first stern test. Under coach Brian Kelly, the Irish were 73rd in third-down percentage in his first season in 2010. Since then, Notre Dame has finished 19th, 24th, 52nd and 14th on third downs.
The pieces are in place, as is the scheme.
“I think we’ve just got to be better,” Johnson said. “When it comes down to it, you can talk about it until you’re blue in the face. You’ve got to see it. We’ve got to do it on the field.”