Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

Soon we’ll see if Tech’s defenders fit Nate Woody’s aggressive scheme

In two weeks we will see what’s billed as a new brand of defensive football at Georgia Tech. 

We are told coordinator Nate Woody will deploy his guys aggressively after they were used passively for four years under Ted Roof. If Tech’s defenders were thinking and reacting before, they will run and play free in Woody’s simpler scheme. The Yellow Jackets will blitz and attack from everywhere on the field. 

That’s the word around the Tech football team. Defensive players have been raving about the new approach since spring. Their teammates on offense have been impressed by the new look.

But then isn’t this how it usually goes whenever a bad defense changes coordinators and schemes? Of course the new look will be more aggressive, and naturally the players are excited. This is especially true for Tech’s defense, which was never better than mediocre under Roof in large part because it didn’t create many negative plays or takeaways. 

Under the circumstances, it would be weird for coach Paul Johnson to announce a new coordinator who would do more of the same. The challenge can be fitting a new scheme to personnel who may be not be suited to play it. 

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And Johnson isn’t ready to say the Jackets have the players to match their defensive ambitions. 

“We will see,” Johnson said. “We haven’t played a game. I think the 3-4 is probably easier for us because we don’t have to find as many defensive linemen. You can play more “tweeners” and hopefully guys that can run. Get a lot of speed on the field.” 

That makes sense, in theory. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that, if the Jackets have players who could be more disruptive, then Roof would have used them that way. I can’t think of a reason why the coordinator of a struggling defense wouldn’t do so (or why a head coach wouldn’t make them). 

Maybe some of the younger players can help. Most of Tech’s better recent recruits are defenders, and a few of them are listed on the two-deep depth chart in the preseason. Woody wants to play more players, and Johnson said the Jackets have enough depth to do it. 

A simpler scheme might help the young talent hit the ground blitzing. 

“A lot of the young guys will play,” Johnson said. “But the older guys are going to have to carry the load. You can’t play in this league with freshmen and sophomores.” 

Woody’s task will be to find aggressive playmakers from among a group with no history doing it. 

Stating with the 2014 season, Football Outsiders has compiled a “havoc rate” that measures the combined percentage of plays that result in tackles for loss, forced fumbles and passes defended (including interception). Tech’s national ranks under Roof: 67th, 123rd, 120th and 109th. 

Woody was hired after establishing a track record for fielding attacking units during five seasons as coordinator at Appalachian State. Those team’s “havoc rate” national rankings since moving to FBS in 2014: 65th, 39th, 62nd and 15th. 

Tech’s offensive players say they’ve seen the difference in style. 

“They are a lot more aggressive with the blitz,” B-back Jerry Howard said. 

“It’s different,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “A lot of teams don’t really blitz, especially off the edge with the corners and stuff. They’ve been doing that a lot.” 

Aggressive schemes are always a risk-reward proposition. The Jackets didn’t make many disruptive plays when Roof was coordinator, but until last season, neither did they allow an inordinate among of big plays. The conservative defensive approach worked when Johnson’s option was humming and holding the ball. 

Now the Jackets will have linemen slanting, linebackers blitzing and cornerbacks coming off the edge. Will they allow more big plays than can be justified by the turnovers, three-and-outs and tackles for losses? Would Johnson have Woody call off the dogs if his offense keeps needing to come from behind? 

Woody is Johnson’s fourth defensive coordinator in 10 seasons. Roof’s units were never better than mediocre but, then again, he produced Johnson’s three best defenses by measure of Football Outsiders. Woody had better (opponent-adjusted) results over the past three seasons, but it could take him time to figure things out with Tech. 

Since its high-water mark of 2014, Tech’s offense has been a middling unit in the ACC. I predict the Jackets will be better than expected this season because they’ll have more experience on offense and -- this is key -- Johnson said he’s not worried about his quarterback group. He’ll sort out the offense. 

That would mean Tech’s defense doesn’t need to be great. It just needs more tipped balls, forced fumbles and takeaways to go along with the usual bend-but-don’t-break. The Jackets say that’s what they’ll do, but that’s what they all say when they get a new coordinator and scheme. 

Soon, we’ll see.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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