Tennessee running back John Kelly (4) gets tackled by Georgia Tech defensive lineman Anree Saint-Amour (94) and Georgia Tech linebacker Victor Alexander (9) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday, September 4, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia Tech defense seeks to sustain success

Is this the year the Georgia Tech defense turns a short stretch of encouraging play into a season-long occurrence? 

That’s been a topic of discussion numerous times during coach Paul Johnson’s tenure. The answer should come Saturday against Miami.

Since a strong showing from the Yellow Jackets’ defense in Johnson’s first season, 2008, the defense mainly has been a negative outside of blips -- most notably 2013, 2014 and 2016.

Coming in with one of the more experienced units in the nation, the Tech defense didn’t start off well when it allowed 42 points on Labor Day against a Tennessee team that has imploded since. But in the past three games against Jacksonville State, Pittsburgh and North Carolina, it’s performance has rivaled the best stretch of play from the defense in the last decade. 

Taking only scoring outcomes into account, Tech’s 34 points allowed in that stretch has been outdone just twice with Johnson under control. In 2008, it held Mississippi State, Duke and Gardner-Webb to a combined 14 points. Last season, the Jackets started by allowing 31 combined to Boston College, Mercer and Vanderbilt. The 2013 defense matched this season’s in the opening three games, versus Elon, Duke and North Carolina. 

Perhaps the most impressive came in 2014, when the defense allowed 39 points to Virginia, North Carolina State and Clemson, a three-game stretch that didn’t include an FCS opponent, as the others did. 

The issue has been the results surrounding the moments that have shortly excited fans. Last season following the strong defensive start, Tech allowed 34.2 points per game over the next six contests, in which it went 2-4. In 2014, the Jackets’ final three games after the three-game stint saw the defense allow an average of 31.7 points, but the offense picked up the slack to grab wins against Georgia and Mississippi State. 

Much like the season after, 2013’s defense quickly fell off a promising start with three consecutive losses in which it allowed 33.3 points per game. 

The only season in which it mostly held up to be a consistent unit was 2008 -- a team that featured future NFL starters in Morgan Burnett, Derrick Morgan, Michael Johnson and Vance Walker. Tech went on to finish 28th in the country in points allowed -- the best finish under Johnson. 

It currently sits 27th. 

Still, Johnson and the defense knows that the biggest tests lie ahead. With UNC and Pitt appearing to be suffering through major down years, the strength of opponents hasn’t been overwhelming. That’s about to change. ESPN ranks the rest of Tech’s schedule as the toughest in the country. It all starts with Miami. 

“I think we are playing better … we’re tackling better,” Johnson said. “We’re being able to stop the run with some blitzes and stunts and some of that, makes it hard if teams don’t run the ball. The competition level is going to move way up next game.” 

Miami ranks 13th in ESPN’s Football Power Index rankings. The next highest team faced so far is Tennessee at 51st. Tech sits 27th. With the Hurricanes’ star running back, Mark Walton, now out for the season, the Jackets will catch a minor break in trying to contain an offense that is ranked sixth in the country in offensive efficiency. Quarterback Malik Rosier has stepped in seamlessly for Brad Kaaya and presents the dual-threat skill set that former ACC quarterbacks like Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Marquise Williams have had success on the Tech defense with. 

Outside of the obvious improvement in pass rush thus far, the major key in success has been the sure-tackling ability of linebackers and defensive backs for the Jackets. Brant Mitchell has settled in as the leader in the middle of the field. A.J. Gray had a standout performance against UNC at safety, and defensive coordinator Ted Roof has seemed to figure out a fitting role for the versatile junior. With experience and young, breakout talent conjoining, the Tech defense has its first chance to solidify itself as an emerging unit against a team -- and a coach -- that has had its number for years. 

Mark Richt is 7-2 against Johnson, most of that at Georgia, and Miami is 7-2 against him. The Hurricanes have scored 35 or more points against Tech in four of the past five meetings. Adding to the importance, Miami will come in with the most hype around its program in a while, as it ended a losing streak to Florida State last week and nearly broke into the top 10 of the AP Poll. 

With all things considered, Saturday will show whether the Tech defense is ready to take the next step … or if the recent success proved to be a result of inferior opponents and the streaky play that has plagued it for years.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.