Attaochu may be what Georgia Tech defense needs

On a team devoid of defense, and possibly to a degree leadership, Jeremiah Attaochu stood up in a defensive team meeting two weeks ago and delivered a needed, even if obvious, message to his Georgia Tech teammates.

“It’s not just about me being a senior,” he recalled recently. “I told them, ‘Everybody on the defensive side of the ball needs to feel an urgency to be great defensively at Georgia Tech.’ Because it’s been a while. It needs to happen now because you don’t know who’s going to be here next year, whether you’re a player or a coach.”

When asked if he yelled or pounded his fist for emphasis, Attaochu smiled and said, “No. I’m more of a genteel leader off the field. On the field, I’m more of a psychopath.”

I’m not one to endorse the use of psychopaths. But given that Tech has finished 56th, 57th, 60th and 65th in scoring defense in the past four seasons, the Yellow Jackets could probably benefit from a personality change. (Coach Paul Johnson, who doesn’t suffer fools well, has changed his defensive coordinator three times. Latest transactions: Al Groh out, Ted Roof in.)

Which leads to Attaochu. He’s probably the best defensive player the Jackets have and will be a key to this season. He led the team with 10 sacks last season. Eight of those came following Groh’s firing at midseason, when Attaochu was turned into more of a full-time pass rusher.

Attaochu is on preseason “watch” lists for five awards. You don’t need to know specifically what the awards honor, just the individuals that they’re named for: Bronko Nagurski, Dick Butkus, Chuck Bednarik, Ted Hendricks, Vince Lombardi.

There might be one or two psychopaths in there.

“He’s going to be key for us as a pass rusher, and he’s more in his natural spot,” said Johnson, referencing the player’s move from outside linebacker in a 3-4 to defensive end in the 4-3. “I think he’s excited about putting his hand down and speed rushing.”

This team needs something. For as much as some people don’t like Johnson’s offense, there’s not much of a case to be made for it not producing. If the Jackets just hold an opponent under 30 once in a while, they’ll win their share of games.

Attaochu could have turned pro after last season, but he received only a “mid-round” grade. Just as well. He’s not huge (6-foot-3, 243 pounds, up about eight pounds from last season) and he’s still young (a rare 20-year-old senior).

The reason for his youth goes back to his Nigerian roots. He started going to school at the age of four in Ibadan, Nigeria. His father moved to Washington, D.C., to find work, and the family followed four years later. Attaochu went through “culture shock.”

“I was going to a private school in Nigeria and in D.C. I was going to the worst public school,” he said. “It was definitely tough. My brother used to get bullied a lot. I was the younger, thicker brother, so I would help him fight bullies. It was tough. Everybody wants to pick on the new foreign kids.

“And we start school younger in Nigeria. I was eight years old in the fourth grade, and most kids are 10.”

Attaochu was given a scholarship to a private high school. But on the advice of the school, and against his wishes, his mother held him back a year before the ninth grade because of his age.

“I was still the smallest and the youngest when I went to high school,” he said. “If my mom didn’t do that I probably wouldn’t have been big enough my senior year to even be considered a Division I athlete. I hadn’t even gone through puberty, and I would’ve been trying to play high school football.”

The age thing has sometimes been an issue. Attaochu said that he was hosting some recruits a couple of years ago “and they were older than me. They were like, ‘This is kind of weird.’ But I think people still look up to me. I’m always trying to act older than I am.”

Add to this that he obtained his driver’s license only earlier this year. The minimum age is higher in Washington. Besides, he doesn’t own a car.

Attaochu was a little embarrassed when the subject was brought up. “My girlfriend drove me,” he said. “It was kind of belittling. And she was younger than me, too. I kind of felt like less than a man.”

That shouldn’t be an issue on the field. Tech’s defense probably will go as Attaochu goes.

As for any “psycho” tendencies, we’ve witnessed that once. In 2011, he punched Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas in the head after a sack, which extended a drive that resulted in a game-turning Hokies’ touchdown.

Johnson: “That was a learning process for him. He’s calmed down a little since then.”

A little excitable would be welcome.

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