Heat’s on Yellow Jackets safeties Golden, Johnson

Georgia Tech defensive back Jamal Golden.

Credit: Johnny Crawford / AJC File

Credit: Johnny Crawford / AJC File

Georgia Tech defensive back Jamal Golden.

He wasn’t on the job when they last played together, but Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof knows what safeties Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden have been — intelligent, effective players on the last line of defense.

“Both of them have made a bunch of big plays for Georgia Tech in their career,” he said. “I anticipate them doing more of the same moving forward because they’re working at getting better, just like our whole bunch is.”

He wouldn’t mind if they moved forward a significant distance Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium. In a critical ACC Coastal Division matchup against Miami, the Yellow Jackets’ defense will be tasked with corralling the most explosive and talented offense it has faced this season.

Improved play from Golden and Johnson is “more critical than I can explain,” Roof said.

Roof doesn’t lack for reasons. Both veteran safeties have not tackled well, not wrapping up ballcarriers or taking faulty angles to track them down. The four plays of 60 yards or more that Tech gave up in the first three games — two more than it gave up last season and tied for second most in the country — were in part because of breakdowns at safety.

Last season, Miami laid waste to the Jackets defense in a 45-30 win at Sun Life Stadium. The Hurricanes averaged better than a first down per play — 10.4 yards — to set an opponent record for Tech. Notably, Johnson and Golden were not on the field for the Jackets. Two weeks earlier, Johnson had decided to redshirt the season after tearing his ACL in bowl practice in December 2012. Golden was home at his apartment, recovering from shoulder surgery that ended his season after three games.

“Coach (Paul) Johnson called me before that game to see how I was feeling and everything,” Golden said. “I was a little drugged up and everything, but I was able to watch the game and cheer my guys on.”

For both players, the extended convalescence helps explain their substandard play to this point. Roof said that for both players, the mental side of the game is not a problem. Missed assignments have been few. It’s carrying out those assignments that has been the taller order.

“Going against our offense through the spring, through summer camp, it’s all fast, but the game’s a different speed,” Golden said. “You can’t simulate game speed in practice or a scrimmage. Even though I played a bunch, getting back in the groove, the game speed was a little fast for me. But I feel like I’m getting better. I’m ready to go out Saturday and see what it holds.”

Golden gives himself a grade of 70 or 75 (out of 100) for his play on defense in the first four games. Both his play and Johnson’s play have improved, particularly against Virginia Tech. The longest play that Tech gave up was 31 yards.

“It’s improving, but we need to make sure that we bring our ‘A’ game this weekend,” secondary coach Joe Speed said. “Miami has elusive runners and receivers, so we need to make sure we do a good job and run to the ball and wrap those guys up.”

For Golden and Johnson, effective tackling is a must. If Miami running back Duke Johnson or receivers such as Phillip Dorsett can get past them, there often won’t be anyone else left to stop them.

“We’ve missed a lot of tackles back there,” Paul Johnson said. “I thought it was better in the last game. It’s just got to continue (to improve), not just those two guys. I mean, we’ve missed tackles everywhere. It’s magnified when it’s back there.”

Tackling drills were a priority during preparations for the Hurricanes, taking the proper angles to track down ballcarriers and running through the tackle.

Better play in zone pass coverage on third downs also was addressed. Tech ranks 118th in the country in third-down defense at 48.98 percent. In the Virginia Tech game, the Hokies converted seven of nine third downs in the first half, with six of the conversions on third-and-5 or longer. The Jackets held the Hokies to 1-for-5 in the second half.

In those situations, more consistent and effective play by Golden and Johnson (and the rest of the secondary) will both improve pass coverage and also give Roof more confidence to commit more defenders to the pass rush.

“We’ve got to play better,” Roof said. “They’ve worked extremely hard, and I expect them to, and so do they.”