So far, so good.
With spring practices and the first three days of fall work behind them, Georgia Tech’s defenders sound as if they’re embracing Roof’s simpler system.
That’s a good thing because on the way to allowing 28.3 points per game last season, fourth-most at Tech since 1948, the Yellow Jackets were a confused mess on defense in a 7-7 season that left them 21-19 since winning the ACC title in ’09.
“It’s a lot easier to comprehend,” said senior cornerback Louis Young, one of eight defensive starters returning for the Yellow Jackets. “We’re not thinking as much; we’re just going out and playing. I’m excited to prove people wrong about the ‘D.’”
It’s easy to understand skeptics. Tech went 9-4 in Johnson’s first season in ’08, and 11-3 the next season, although those wins and that championship were later vacated by NCAA sanctions.
A three-game losing streak last season was the worst skid since.
Georgia Tech allowed totals of 609, 510 and 601 yards and 42, 49 and 47 points consecutively to Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson. That prompted the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh.
Roof, an Atlanta native and former Yellow Jacket linebacker (1982-85) and defensive coordinator (1999-2001), is installing a 4-3 system that relies on fewer audibles and adjustments than Groh’s NFL-styled 3-4.
Scoring points has not often been a problem at Georgia Tech since Johnson took over. Defense has been another story under coordinators Dave Wommack, Groh, and interim Charles Kelly (now a Florida State assistant).
The well-traveled Roof was content at Penn State after previous stops at Georgia Tech, Minnesota, Duke (as head coach), Central Florida and Auburn (in the 2010 national championship season) among others. Yet, he called Johnson about the job opening, wanting to follow his heart back to his alma mater and hometown.
He isn’t one to get technical, or make guarantees. He could care less that the Jackets were picked by ACC media to finish fourth in the Coastal division.
“I feel good about where we are. I feel good about where we’re going,” he said at a recent media gathering. “It’d be easy to say we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that. I’m not into that. I want to go to work. I want our guys to take pride in everything that they do.”
There is more material for Roof to work with than in ’99, when he inherited a young Tech roster in his first job as a coordinator. Those Yellow Jackets allowed 30.3 points per game.
Defensive end Jeremiah Attouchu, who has moved from outside linebacker, Young, and safeties Isaiah Johnson and Jemea Thomas are seniors with pro aspirations. Linebackers Quayshawn Nealy, Brandon Watts and Jabari Hunt-Days all have considerable experience as well.
“We’re definitely more free,” Attaochu said. “Coach Roof is a lot simpler. We know our talent. We played with USC (a 21-7 Georgia Tech win in the Sun Bowl) and we played with Florida State (a 21-15 loss in the ACC championship Game) — teams that get four- and five-star recruits.
“There’s no doubt we have talent — it’s just about putting us into position to use it. That’s why coach has me at defensive end, to rush the passer.”
There is competition for playing time on the line beyond Attaochu, and Johnson’s return to safety is being delayed after knee surgery.
More importantly, the Yellow Jackets’ attitude has been made over through simplification.
“I feel like we’re coming together and the whole atmosphere around the defense has changed,” Nealy said. “The first thing coach Roof says is NPH — ‘nobody plays harder.’ He says, ‘You don’t have to have a 4.4, or be the biggest or the strongest, but you can always give effort.
“Effort comes from within. It’s within your heart. It’s definitely going to come down to defense and how we play. We’re looking forward to turning people’s heads.”