Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker is digging deeply into his coaching manual. With his defense not producing takeaways at the rate that he would like, Thacker has sought to find ways in practice to keep fumbles and interceptions front of mind.
On Tuesday, he offered defensive players a deal. Anyone who came up with a turnover in practice could redeem it for 10 pushups from strength-and-conditioning coach Lewis Caralla. When the defense practices against the developmental (scout-team) offense, Thacker said he won’t blow his whistle until the defense has stripped the ball away from the player with the ball.
“We try to create ways to be creative, to have fun with it, to incentivize it, to talk about it,” Thacker said.
A forced turnover in the form of linebacker Demetrius Knight’s strip sack of Miami quarterback N’Kosi Perry (recovered in the end zone by defensive tackle Ja’Quon Griffin) was the first punch thrown in the Jackets’ toppling of the Hurricanes on Oct. 19. But it was the only takeaway that Tech could procure from Miami, below Thacker’s standard of three.
The Jackets defense started the season with a takeaway spree – five in the first two games. But Tech has four in the past five games. For a defense that isn’t effective at stopping possessions via other means – the Jackets rank tied for 103rd in defensive third-down conversion rate, at 43.93 percent – the emphasis on getting the ball has only heightened.
“We talk about it ad nauseum,” Thacker said.
Another reason it’s important – with Tech’s offense slowly coming together, the unit will accept all the short fields it can take. But without turnovers, or much help from the kickoff- and punt-return units, Tech’s offense has had consistently poor field position in recent weeks.
In the past four games – Temple, North Carolina, Duke and Miami – the Jackets have started a total of four regulation drives beyond their own 35-yard line.
Tech’s inability to get turnovers by forced fumble is particularly galling to Thacker. At Temple last season – Thacker’s first season as a defensive coordinator – the Owls tied for 10th nationally with 16 forced fumbles. Temple tied for 19th in 2017 with 14. Coach Geoff Collins has said proudly that creating turnovers is “part of our DNA.”
Forced fumbles are often the product of multiple defenders rallying to the ball, the sort of effort-filled play that Thacker and Collins preach. Knight’s forced fumble also exemplified Collins’ aggressive style, as the Jackets loaded up a six-man blitz with Miami facing a third-and-long inside its own red zone.
But Tech has had trouble generating pass-rush pressure, meaning that both opportunities for forced fumbles and interceptions are diminished. Tech hasn’t had much success lately with interceptions, either, with none in the opposition’s past 98 pass attempts.
Thacker isn’t merely emphasizing it with clever incentives. There are drills dedicated to it. Players are shown game and practice video to study techniques and scenarios in which takeaways are created.
“It’s willing those things to happen by having techniques to be able to get the ball out,” he said.
Three takeaways is an objective with some punch. Dating to 2015, ACC teams that recorded three or more takeaways are 143-38, according to sports-reference.com.
“We gave ourselves a chance (against Miami) because we started fast and created a takeaway early in the game,” Thacker said. “We have to get more.”
Tech’s opponent Saturday will undoubtedly be wary. Pitt lost to Miami on Saturday with three giveaways. Two weeks before that, the Panthers committed four turnovers against Duke, which committed six.