What Tech defensive players see after three weeks

Panthers’ Maurice Ffrench runs upfield after a catch in the fourth quarter against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Sept. 15, 2018, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Credit: Justin Berl

Credit: Justin Berl

Georgia Tech’s defense is a long way from how new defensive coordinator Nate Woody wants it. Players have to learn and absorb far more of the scheme than what they’ve been taught. Recruits that fit the positions have to be signed.

As coach Paul Johnson put it, “We’re in the infant stages of putting the stuff in.”

At Appalachian State, clear improvement didn't happen until Woody had been there for a season and a half. Still, though Tech is 1-2, players see improvement after three games. Their biggest test of the season by far comes Saturday against No. 3 Clemson at Bobby Dodd Stadium (3 p.m., WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News).

» Reactions: Player, coach at Appalachian State recall challenges of Nate Woody's first season

“We look at film from the previous week and (Woody) will say, ‘Yeah, last week, you did this, and this week, you did it right,’” linebacker Brant Mitchell said. “We can see it. It’s something that we can see as players, and I think that helps to get the confidence and to know that you can do it in the future. And that’s the thing. If we become more consistent with doing right and fitting our gaps and playing good coverage behind it, we’ll be good.”

Against South Florida in the second game, players were often out of gaps and lost track of their assignments, allowing Bulls running backs and quarterback Blake Barnett to run up the middle through holes or around the edge on keepers. USF ran 44 times for 224 yards, 5.1 yards per carry. Last Saturday against Pitt, Tech held the Panthers to 138 yards on 31 carries, 4.5 yards per attempt. That rate isn’t going to set records, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The defense particularly held firm after the disastrous first quarter, limiting Pitt to 68 rushing yards on 21 carries. In Pitt’s final six possessions, the Panthers gained 114 points, scored three points and were intercepted once.

Stinger linebacker Jalen Johnson said the defense is getting used to playing the scheme at game speed.

“I feel like we’re getting better every week,” he said.

The process also includes figuring out how best to use the talent available. Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour played a handful of snaps at Jack linebacker, the rush linebacker spot, against Pittsburgh. Johnson hinted on his radio show Monday that Tech may use Saint-Amour differently against Clemson.

“It was just an extra pass-rusher type thing,” Saint-Amour said of playing Jack. “They were just trying me out at that position, see what we can do.”

Saint-Amour has proved thus far to be one of the more effective players on the defense. Against Pitt, he had four tackles, one for loss, and two quarterback pressures.

“Like we’ve said from the start, I think this defense really fits our personnel -- and Anree especially,” Mitchell said. “I think it allows him to play fast instead of just kind of being stationary and trying to just hold a gap. I think it allows him to play a little bit more loose and play his type of game.”

Tech-Clemson is one of college football's oldest rivalries, dating back to 1898.

» More: Paul Johnson's scouting report on Clemson

Saint-Amour said that the line is improving at its stunts, in which players cross paths or loop around each other, to confuse the offensive line.

“I feel like we’re getting more comfortable in the defense as a whole,” he said. “That’s probably what’s causing that pressure to accumulate.”

Clemson, with its array of elite running backs and receivers and talented pair of quarterbacks, will challenge Tech in a way that it hasn’t yet. Johnson said this week that the Tigers receivers and backs “are as good as anybody in the country.”

In the run game, running back Travis Etienne (7.3 yards per carry in his career) will be able to exploit mistakes and creases. In the pass, quarterbacks Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence are a combined 56-for-86 (65.1 percent) and are averaging 9.6 yards per attempt.

Tech lapsed in the second half against USF and the first against Pitt. With Clemson’s stout defense, even one bad quarter against the Tigers’ offense could melt any chance of an upset.

» Also: Tech can't repeat disastrous first quarters against Clemson

“The whole country knows they’ve got some of the best skill players in the nation,” Mitchell said. “But we’re going to have something for them. We’ve got our defense and, as long as it’s played to the best of our ability, heck, we’ll be just fine, like I said. As long as we stick to our assignments and just play how we know how to play and secure tackles and run to the ball, we’ll be fine.”

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