In Year 3 of rebuild, Georgia Tech’s defense has the players to ‘attack’

Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker.

Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker.

For the first time since he was a graduate assistant, Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker is in Year 3 at a program. That comes with benefits for a self-described “Georgia boy.” Some are personal: Thacker’s daughter went to kindergarten with her two best friends, and the three just started first grade. There’s also the professional opportunity: Thacker is still here to help coach Geoff Collins complete Tech’s rebuild.

“Even though we take the approach of what’s important now ... there’s been a lot of buildup in our head about going into Year 3,” Thacker said Tuesday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “It doesn’t promise anything, but we feel like the growth we’ve made into going into Year 3 is special. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but we feel like we can play a really good brand of football this year.

“Coach Collins, through some tough times, has shown a lot of loyalty and a lot of faith in his staff to execute his vision.”

That vision certainly includes more than three victories in a season. The Yellow Jackets were 3-9 in 2019 and 3-7 in 2020. There have been growing pains associated with moving on from the triple-option offense. Related to that was the task of building a defense that’s more than an add-on to the offense.

Tech’s defense was bad in 2019. It was better in a lot of ways last season, just not the most important one, keeping opponents off the scoreboard (14th of 15 ACC teams in scoring defense). The Jackets have a better chance to field a respectable defense this season.

A lack of size and depth on the defensive line has been a big problem. Attrition eventually forced undersized linebacker Charlie Thomas to line up at defensive end last season. The Jackets have more players for the line now. That includes two players who were injured last season, tackle T.K. Chimedza and end Sylvain Yondjouen.

Tech’s defense is bigger up front. Transfer defensive end Keion White, a very productive player at Old Dominion, is listed at 267 pounds. The other projected starter at defensive end, Antonneous Clayton, is about 260. Tech has three experienced defensive tackles pushing 300 pounds.

Said Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude: “Now there’s some ‘big cats’ in there on the other side of the ball, too. So you have to go in there and muscle these guys out of the way.”

The idea is that stouter players on the defensive line will allow Tech to make more plays behind them. Thacker said middle linebacker Ayinde Eley, another transfer, “gives us a physical presence, a physical dominance.” He said as many as eight defensive backs are good enough to line up as one of five starters in the base defense.

Tech’s defensive options were limited for two seasons. Now Thacker can use more calls and personnel groupings.

“Yeah, I know, that sounds cool in a press conference,” Thacker said. “How are we giving them multiplicity? Through different defensive structures and a mindset of how we play. We are going to attack them. We are not going to sit (back) and be responsive.”

Tech made hay for a while with Johnson’s throwback offense. The eventual diminishing returns bolstered my belief that good defense is the likeliest path to sustained success for the program. That’s one reason I liked the hire of Collins. He ran good defenses for Mississippi State and Florida and continued that trend as Temple head coach (Thacker was his coordinator for one season there).

The other good thing about the Collins hire is his track record in recruiting. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs have been his key signings at Tech. But the defense also has benefited from his ability to draw talent, both from high school and the transfer portal.

Johnson’s option was Tech’s brand for so long that it’s easy to forget the program once regularly fielded good defenses. The Jackets finished third or better in ACC scoring defense in four of Bobby Ross’ five seasons as head coach. They ranked 10th nationally in 1990, when they won a share of the national championship.

George O’Leary’s Jackets were playing good defense by the time he left after the 2001 season. They slipped a bit with Chan Gailey, and the decline continued under Johnson. His first two teams ranked in the top half of ACC scoring defense. That happened just once more over Johnson’s final nine seasons. The Jackets won by controlling the ball with efficient running plays and by wrong-footing opponents explosive running plays.

Things have changed for defenses since Ross’ days at Tech. The evolution of offensive football means playing fast, spreading the field and hitting explosive plays. The increased use of run/pass options, with lax enforcement of generous rules on ineligible receivers downfield, makes it harder on defenses.

Thacker said one reason the Jackets need to be aggressive is because of the offensive talent they’ll face in the ACC. It’s inevitable that they’ll give up big plays. They aim to make some, too.

“We look at it through a team lens,” Thacker said. “Our ultimate goal every Saturday is to win a game. If our offense has more points, then we’ve done our job as a team.

“That being said, we really, really educate our defense and take the philosophy of not being responsive to offenses. We want to attack them.”

Tech’s defense can benefit from playing that style. The offense has the potential to be better in the second season with budding stars Sims and Gibbs. Sims is working on his accuracy, and Tech has questions along the offensive line and at wide receiver. It might take time to answer them, while the defense appears more ready to go from the start.

Oddsmakers put Tech’s over/under win total at five games. ESPN’s Football Power Index computer model projects between 5-7 victories. Tech’s schedule is tough, but the floor of expectations is higher for Collins, his staff and the players.

“There’s a different walk, there’s a different talk,” Thacker said. “It’s not arrogance. It’s not hubris. It’s an air of confidence. I’m really excited about how it’s going to translate into football.”

I’m looking forward to seeing what Thacker can do with Tech’s defense in Year 3.