A first look at Georgia Tech’s new defense is not discouraging

Two Georgia Tech fans walk into a bar. They’ve just witnessed another come-from-ahead loss. One Techie says, “If only this team could play defense ...”

The other says: “Are we allowed to do that?”

Apologies for going Bad Henny Youngman on you, but the continuing saga of Paul Johnson and the abject scorn for his defense had become almost funny. His offense would put up points and his defenders would hand them back, and he’d fuss and cuss and then … well, nothing. For all his conspicuous displeasure with the Yellow Jackets’ failure to stop somebody, the next game and the next month and the next season would be no different than the one before.

If you’re counting, Johnson – about to enter his 11th Tech season – is on his fourth defensive coordinator. (If you’re counting interim DCs, it’s his fifth.) The new man is Nate Woody, hired from Appalachian State to replace Ted Roof, the distinguished former Jacket whose defenses here distinguished themselves by being only slightly better than those of Dave Wommack’s and Al Groh’s, which wasn’t saying much.

Woody’s App State crews were good on third down and inducing turnovers, which is something his predecessor’s defenses rarely were in tandem. Last year’s Jackets ranked 12th-best nationally in third-down conversion against, 124th in takeaways; the 2014 Orange Bowl team was 17th in the latter category, 114th in the former.

“This defense is set up to make some negative plays,” Johnson said Friday. Indeed, the first three snaps of Tech’s spring game – with the No. 1 offense, minus quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who had strep throat, working against the No. 1 defense – went thusly: touch-sack (no hitting the QB this night), fumble in the backfield, interception. There’s your third-down stop plus a takeaway on the opening series of this defense’s public debut. Can world domination be far off?

Johnson again: “That’s what we’re looking for. They popped the linebackers a lot the first three series. We weren’t running plays to counter that.” (Neither Blue or White managed a first down until the fourth possession.)

Speaking before the game, athletic director Todd Stansbury – himself a Tech linebacker on Don Lindsey’s famed Black Watch of the mid-’80s – spoke of the most obvious change from Roof, his former teammate, to Woody. “The biggest thing is the 3-4,” he said. “We used the 3-4 when I played. And Tech is known for having good linebackers.”

The 3-4 gets an extra linebacker on the field, meaning there’s one less defensive linemen. D-linemen tend to be precious commodities in recruiting, something at which Tech has seldom excelled. Switching to the 3-4 could turn that failure into something approaching success. One thing the Jackets can find is smallish linebackers, the kind that aren’t apt to be five-star guys.

Johnson: “Some of the freshmen were tweeners when we recruited them -- a cross between outside linebackers and safety types. We have some guys who can run.”

One is sophomore-to-be Jaquan Henderson of Covington’s Newton High. Asked what he liked about Woody’s defense, Henderson said: “There’s no thinking. We’re trying to make plays. I don’t like to think out there.”

Said Johnson: “This defense is a good fit for Georgia Tech and the kind of players we can get here.”

This defense might also mesh with Johnson’s offense, which has often seemed to be working at cross-purposes with its lesser half. “Our offense is part of our defense,” Stansbury said, and that’s a key point. Because Johnson’s offense is always among the national leaders in rushing, the Jackets tend to hog the ball. They ranked sixth in time of possession last year; in the 2014 Orange Bowl season, they were third.

“Nate comes from a place where they had a similar offense,” Stansbury said. “He’s used to this. If you stop somebody, they might not get the ball again. That can affect your play-calling on third down.”

We pause here for the standard disclaimer: There has never been a team that changes defensive coordinators that doesn’t laud the new man’s scheme as both More Aggressive and Less Complex. (Just once, I’d love to hear a new DC say, “Our aim is to be more passive and pensive.”) Just because it kind of worked in a scrimmage – and the Blue Team without Marshall still scored 24 points to win by 10 – doesn’t mean it will work against Miami, Clemson and Georgia.

But Roof’s way hadn’t quite worked, either. He’d been here five years, and last season Tech lost four games in which the opponent scored 38-plus points. And if Johnson can find a defense to his liking – I wouldn’t hold my breath – who knows what wonders might be wrought?

Johnson on his 2018 team: “I think there’s enough athletes there, enough players. We’ve got a good nucleus back – nine starters on offense. Defensively, if we can create some negative plays and get off the field … we’ll see.”

Yes. We will. The Jackets have been so tepid on defense for so long that this correspondent has wondered if – as silly as this sounds – Johnson might prefer it that way. (You know, so everything falls on his offense.) But when you score 41 points against Tennessee and 36 against Virginia, each of which would fire its head coach, and you lose both games, you’d better try something different.

This defense is different. It could well be better. It would be hard to be worse.