The Yellow Jackets know their title hopes will likely depend on what they do on the other side of the line.
While the Atlantic Coast Conference school has piled up big rushing totals during Paul Johnson’s tenure as head coach, the defense has yet to establish itself as a championship-level unit. Last season, the Yellow Jackets gave up nearly 360 yards per game, ranking 44th nationally, and they were even worse in points allowed, 60th with a 26.1 average.
“We want to make it as easy as we can for our offense,” junior safety Isaiah Johnson said. “We don’t want to put a lot of pressure on them. We’ve just got to do our part. We’ve got to step up.”
There should be more familiarity with the 3-4 scheme in Al Groh’s third season as defensive coordinator, allowing the players to approach their roles with greater confidence and instincts instead of worrying about where they should be lining up.
Linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu said he’s noticed a big change, both on the field and in the film room.
“Now, you’ll see the players turning around to tell one of the younger guys what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “That didn’t happen before.”
That’s all well and good, but Paul Johnson is looking for results. In his first four seasons, the Yellow Jackets have yet to crack the top 20 in either of the defensive categories that really matter, putting extra pressure on the offense to keep on scoring.
When special teams woes are factored in, this has largely been a program that lives or dies on the success of the triple option.
“If you’re going to be good, you’ve got to have all three phases,” the coach said. “That’s what we’re shooting for. Some days, you’re going to need to score a lot of points. Some days, you’ve got to hold them to a few. It doesn’t matter if you win it 6-3 or 46-43. You still win. The whole team wins. It doesn’t say the offense or defense or special teams won. It says Georgia Tech.”
Johnson has hired a special teams coordinator for the first time, and now the burden is on Groh to start turning things around. The Yellow Jackets gave up fewer yards a year ago than they did in 2010, but the points actually went up slightly from 25.2 the season before.
Groh dismisses any talk about the 3-4 playing a major role in Georgia Tech’s lack of success. In his mind, the base defense is really rather a moot point because there’s so much switching around during the course of a game.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the scheme,” he said. “The percentage of downs during the course of a season where we actually play a 3-4 defense is 25 or 30 percent, with all the different substitution schemes — goal line, nickel, dime, dollar. We play to match the offensive personnel. (The 3-4) is our starting point. That’s where we teach concepts, where we teach our fundamental skills. But it expands well beyond that.”
Isaiah Johnson said it’s crucial for the defense to create more turnovers and game-turning plays, especially in the secondary. The Yellow Jackets have plenty of size at safety, led by a pair of 208-pounders in Johnson and sophomore Fred Holton, both eager to dole out plenty of big hits.
“I feel like we’ll be able to bring that to the table,” Johnson said. “That’s something you can look forward to watching.”
There’s certainly plenty of experience on the defensive side, with seniors and juniors making up nine of the projected starters. The other two are third-year sophomores.
“I feel very comfortable,” Isaiah Johnson said. “These past two years, we’ve made our mistakes. Those are mistakes we’ve learned from. We’re going to take what we’ve learned and apply it to this season. We know what we’re capable of doing. We’ve worked so hard to be better. I feel so confident in the other players to do their part. So far, they haven’t proven me wrong.”
But enough with the talk. This is only practice. The head coach wants to start seeing some improvement when it matters — in the games.
The Yellow Jackets get a major test right away, opening at No. 16 Virginia Tech on Labor Day night.
“Our guys have experience,” Paul Johnson said. “I hope that means something. We’ll see. We’ve got do it on the field. You can’t just talk about it. You’ve got to do it.”