September 30, 2017 Atlanta -Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson and North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora shake hand after their NCAA college football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, September 30, 2017. Georgia Tech won 33 - 7 over the North Carolina. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Paul Johnson’s (unsurprising) priority for Georgia Tech’s defense

The difference between how Georgia Tech’s defense played in recent seasons and what coach Paul Johnson hopes will change with new defensive coordinator Nate Woody might be summarized with three sets of numbers.

Last season, under Woody’s direction, the Appalachian State defense gave up a play of 40 yards or more once every 60 snaps. Tech’s defense, led by former defensive coordinator Ted Roof, yielded a 40-yard play once every 141 snaps.

However, Appalachian State brought down an opponent behind the line of scrimmage every 9.3 plays. Tech’s rate was one tackle for loss for every 15 plays.

Also, the Mountaineers intercepted the opposition once every 21.1 passes. The Yellow Jackets’ rate was one interception in 55.5 passes.

The numbers suggest a risk-reward play that Johnson wants to make.

“The bottom line is, you don’t want to give up a ton of points,” Johnson told the AJC. “But you can’t be afraid to be aggressive.”

When Tech begins spring practice Monday and Woody initiates implementation of his version of the 3-4 defense, aggressive play will be a core principle. It is a style that matches Johnson’s go-for-it mentality on offense.

Asked if Woody’s scheme might be as good a fit for him as any of the four defensive coordinators that he’s worked with at Tech, Johnson responded, “I think so.”

Anyone who has heard Johnson in recent seasons expound for any length of time about his vision for the Yellow Jackets’ defense knows his priority on creating negative plays, whether it’s turnovers or tackles for loss.

“The biggest statistic is the scoring defense, but in my mind, I don’t think you can play defense in today’s game unless you’re getting negative plays,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be able to get some sacks and tackles for loss.”

According to the analytics company SportSource Analytics – whose co-founders include Atlanta natives and brothers Scott and Steve Prather, the former of whom played baseball at Tech – when an offense suffers lost yardage on at least one play in a possession, it goes on to score 15 percent of the time.

Woody’s last three defenses with the Mountaineers validated that statistic. From 2015-17, Appalachian State finished tied for ninth, 60th and tied for 30th nationally in tackles for loss per game, respectively. In corresponding seasons, they ranked 13th, 10th and 34th in points per possession, according to the website BCF Toys.

Tech, on the other hand, ranked 128th, 120th and 119th in tackles for loss per game from 2015-17. The Jackets’ points-per-possession rankings were 80th, 71st and 66th, respectively.

As Johnson summed, “Get off the field.”

When Johnson evaluated different candidates to replace Roof – now an associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator at N.C. State – tackles for loss and sacks statistics were a part of the evaluation.

As he considered candidates, he said that shifting back to the 3-4 (three down linemen, four linebackers) from the 4-2-5 (four linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs) was “in the back of my mind. I didn’t mind it, but it had to be right.”

Johnson used it previously at Georgia Southern and Navy, and at Tech with Al Groh, Roof’s predecessor. What he didn’t want was a “two-gap” 3-4 defense, in which linemen are responsible for plugging two gaps in the line as opposed to one. That was the format Groh favored.

A two-gap defense typically requires bigger linemen, a body type in high demand that Tech has had difficulty recruiting.

Mainly, Johnson wanted a defense and a coordinator that’s willing to attack unrelentingly.

“That’s where we have really struggled,” Johnson said. “Some of it may very well be personnel, but some of it, you’ve got to be more aggressive at times.”

The perception that Roof didn’t call blitzes is inaccurate. It was more the inability of those blitzes to create sacks or incompletions.

“If you’re rushing five and they’re not getting there, you need to rush six or either rush three and drop eight or rush seven,” Johnson said. “But don’t be in the middle, when you’re not having any (impact), you’re not having the success. It’s just kind of ting, ting, ting, ting down the field.”

Woody, who had been at Appalachian State for five years after a 13-year tenure as defensive coordinator at Wofford, was one of three candidates that Johnson said he considered, but the other two did not get far. Johnson and Woody spoke on the phone a couple of times and Woody visited Johnson at his Cobb County home and also at his vacation home in western North Carolina.

“They’d played some teams in our league and played Georgia and played some people, and so I saw them on film, and I was impressed with how hard they played, and how much pressure they got and that kind of thing,” Johnson said. “It was just kind of natural to him, and then when we talked, what he said kind of made sense to me.”

When spring practice commences, Woody, along with cornerbacks coach Joe Speed, inside linebackers coach Andy McCollum and new assistants Jerome Riase (defensive line) and Shiel Wood (safeties), will begin sorting out the pieces.

“There’s a bunch of guys that’ll get moved around this spring,” Johnson said. “We’ll just have to see. There’s some safeties that’ll get moved down to (linebacker) and there’s some inside linebackers that’ll probably go out and vice versa.”

Johnson said it didn’t give Woody an advantage that he previously was paired with an option offense similar to Tech’s. He’s not sure if Woody’s defense will help improve the offense. He does recognize that his new coordinator is “more about quickness and running than maybe the size,” which figures to dovetail with the sort of players that Tech is able to sign, including those already on the roster.

The season is yet months away. But the Jackets are days away from taking one of the bigger steps in Johnson’s 10-year run at Tech.

“I just wanted something that we could play that the kids could learn and it’s simple and we could play fast and you could be aggressive,” Johnson said.

In case you missed it, Johnson is counting on an aggressive defense.

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