It has been a long time since Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson coached defense – the 1983 and 1984 seasons, when he was defensive line coach at Georgia Southern. But, that experience and his 33 years since of trying to defeat defenses with his spread-option offense has given him a framework for what he wants from his own defenses.
“I want guys to be unencumbered, play fast, know how to get lined up, run to the ball and create some negative plays and have fun doing it,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s occasion to revisit his philosophy was the introduction of his new defensive coordinator, Nate Woody, at a Tuesday news conference. In Woody, who comes to Tech after five seasons at Appalachian State, Johnson appears to have a like-minded match.
Woody’s explanation for what he looks for in defensive linemen spoke to it.
“If he’s just a guy that in this defense, if all he does is take up space and hold offensive linemen from getting to the linebackers, that’s not where we’re going to be successful,” he said. “I want guys that can move and attack. And, speed, quickness, (mentally) processing —all those things matter.”
Playing with an aggressive edge is at the core of Woody’s defensive scheme, one that helped the Mountaineers rank in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, total defense and interceptions in each of the past three seasons.
“I think over the years, I’ve found that offensive linemen, I guess, were the guys that I wanted to try to attack,” he said. “And defensively, if I could get guys that had speed and quickness, those guys were able to disrupt plays before plays were to get underway.”
It isn’t only in scheme where the two align. Johnson said in his first conversation with Woody about the job, Johnson mentioned the habit of defensive coaches to expand on the complexity of offensive formations and the difficulty of defending them.
It is not a perspective that Johnson has necessarily embraced.
“He kind of looked at me,” Johnson said of Woody, “and he goes, ‘Well, it’s either doubles or trips, right?’’
In football argot, Woody meant that receivers or backs either lined up as a pair on one side of the ball (doubles) or as a threesome (trips), no matter how they ultimately bunched together. Johnson liked the answer, because he said it is the same one he has always given.
“In my mind, I thought, ‘OK, I think we might be on to something here,’” Johnson said.
Woody has honed his own version of the 3-4, first during a 13-year run as defensive coordinator at Wofford (his alma mater) and then the past five years at Appalachian State. While he was careful to point out that he won’t be shy about going after top recruits, Woody has developed a system that can work with less recruited talent, as well as an eye for recognizing his own fits.
“As far as recruiting goes, we’re looking for a certain type of guy, and I don’t know that most of these other defenses are looking for the same guy all the time,” he said. “I don’t mind taking an inch or two off a defensive lineman if he can giddy up and go. I don’t mind taking a tenth off a linebacker’s 40 time if he can process quickly.”
Woody has begun the process of evaluating the returning and incoming defensive players to determine where they can fit into his defense, although he wants to get their input on where they’d like to play. He is looking for versatility. He said in the past, he has had players who have played safety and outside linebacker – a prime playmaking position – in the same game.
Woody will replace Ted Roof, who left his alma mater after five seasons to take a co-defensive coordinator position at N.C. State. Johnson said he had researched Woody and other coordinators through watching game video and digging into statistical research.
“It’s not quite that simple, but it kind of fits what I’m looking for overall,” Johnson said of Woody’s scheme. “And I think that, like I said, he has that background and that track record to show that he’s gotten it done at different places.”
Woody’s last game for Appalachian State proved to be the Dollar General Bowl – Dec. 23 against Toledo. Johnson said he had made up his mind about hiring Woody by that point (Roof, under fire for much of the season, made his official departure for N.C. State the previous day), but found the Mountaineers’ performance confirming. Appalachian State held Toledo to 146 yards – 364 yards under its season average – and shut out the Rockets for the first time since 2009.
“Just the thing that was most impressive to me wasn’t necessarily the fact they shut them out – while it’s impressive,” Johnson said. “It was how hard the kids played. And how fast they played. There wasn’t one question they knew where they were going and what they were doing because they were going 100 miles an hour, and that’s the thing that appealed to me.”