Defensive coordinator change pays immediate dividends for Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech linebacker Paul Moala sacks Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech linebacker Paul Moala sacks Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

On Oct. 1, Georgia Tech coach Brent Key made an unconventional decision to change his defensive coordinator not yet halfway through the season.

The immediate effect had a resounding result Saturday as the Yellow Jackets (3-3, 2-1 ACC) went out and played toe-to-toe with a high-scoring Miami team in a 23-20 victory on the road, their first game with Kevin Sherrer in charge of the team’s defense.

“It’s not been much of a change – that’s no discredit to either (Sherrer or former defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker),” Tech defensive end Kyle Kennard said. “It’s just a change of seating. We’re doing the same stuff, we have the same goals as far as the whole unit as a defense. It’s not been anything hard to adjust to.”

By and large, Key and the Jackets have downplayed the notion that the change in leadership within the defense led to improved results and that Tech’s take down of the Hurricanes was more because of effort and execution than anything. Key even lauded Thacker, who went from defensive coordinator to safeties coach as part of the change, for coaching up part of the team’s secondary to an exemplary performance.

Tech’s secondary had five pass breakups, three interceptions and 36 tackles in the victory.

“I was as pleased and as happy with the secondary with the way they tackled,” Key said. “‘Go take your shot, make the tackle. Don’t be afraid to sit there and stutter and have your head down and not make it. You gotta trust the other 10 guys are coming.’ I think they showed up a lot in the game. They hit their shots, and we had 5-6-7 guys coming to rally around to be at the ball.

“That’s what defense is. You can talk about schematic calls and blitzes and stunts and all that, but at the end of the day, are those 11 guys gonna be around the football every single time and turning, putting their foot in the ground and transitioning to the ball? The effort they played with, I thought we improved in that. We got a ways to go with it, but I thought there was improvement.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Tech’s win at Miami was its highest-graded tackling performance of the season. Defensive backs Clayton Powell-Lee, Myles Sims, Kenan Johnson and K.J. Wallace and linebackers Paul Moala and Kyle Efford all finished, according to the site, with tackling grades of 80 or better.

“We obviously worked on (tackling) in practice a lot this week,” Wallace said Saturday. “We had been working in previous weeks as well; it’s just we’re finally starting to understand how it translates to the game and getting ourselves in better body positions for tackles and things like that. That’s what I attribute it to.”

Moala, meanwhile, provided a bit more context as it pertained to how Tech’s defense prepared and performed under Sherrer’s direction last week.

The veteran linebacker Moala, who has played a lot of football at Notre Dame, Idaho and now Tech, said the defense wanted to reestablish its identity after it got somewhat manhandled in a 38-27 loss to Bowling Green at home Sept. 30. Moala said he also knew that Sherrer, the team’s linebackers coach, had a lot to deal with in game-planning for the Hurricanes, so all the Tech linebackers took it upon themselves to set an example throughout the week on how to practice and how to prepare.

That preparation paid off in one play in particular.

On third-and-8 on the Tech 12 with 7:08 to play in the game, Moala sacked Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke for a 9-yard loss. That kept Miami out of the end zone and held Miami to a field goal – the Hurricanes went up 20-17 instead of by more.

“It was a great call by coach Sherrer,” Moala said. “He just wanted us to send an all-out blitz and make that running back make a decision whether to block me or Kyle Efford. What ended up happening is (defensive lineman) Zeek (Biggers) actually took out two guys, which actually allowed me to be free. Back couldn’t see me, so then I came scot-free, snuck passed him and got the sack.”

Now with a two-week gap between games, Key said Tuesday a lot of the defensive emphasis Tuesday and Wednesday was on organization under Sherrer: how coaches will relay play-calls to players on the field, substitutions, personnel groupings, what information is giving to the players during game week, what will be included in scouting reports and how the team is correcting its mistakes.

Some of those nuanced changes may be apparent Oct. 21 when Tech hosts Boston College. But the Jackets will take just more of the same when it comes to the Miami performance.

“Definitely by not becoming complacent,” Kennard said on how to build off the Miami performance. “We’ve been really, really focusing on not becoming complacent and thinking that this win means we won anything as far as hardware. It’s just another game, and we’re trying to beat Boston College the same way we beat Miami. Just trying not to have another situation where we had the week before where we go up and down with inconsistencies.”

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