Ted Roof came back to Georgia Tech with the chance to set things right.
After 12 games, it appears he’s on his way, though hardly there yet.
“We’ll never reach that,” he said last week. “Have we made some strides? Yeah, we’ve made some really good strides, but, as coaches (do) so many times, you think about what we haven’t done as well as we’ve wanted as opposed where we are in some areas that we think we’ve made a lot of improvement in.”
Roof’s first season back as Tech’s defensive coordinator will conclude Dec. 30 at the Music City Bowl in Nashville against Ole Miss. He was hired in January after one season at Penn State, called to mend a defense that had given up 40 points six times last season, didn’t tackle well and was prone to big plays. For someone raised in Gwinnett County who starred at Tech and later coached the Yellow Jackets 1998-2001, returning home was an easy decision. The past 12 months have not changed his stance.
He hasn’t had much time to reflect on the year, but “I think it’s been a good transition,” he said. “I’ve certainly enjoyed being here, and happy to be back at Georgia Tech.”
Players have responded to Roof’s aggressive 4-3 defense and intense coaching style. Tackling is better and, save a couple forgettable outings, big plays have been limited. Run defense and third-down efficiency, two big priorities for both Roof and coach Paul Johnson, have improved.
The Jackets improved their yards-per-carry average against FBS opponents from 4.2 against last year (65th in the country) to 3.7 (27th).
Against FBS competition, Tech’s third-down conversion rate was 35.5 percent this season (23rd in the country), improved from 43.7 percent last season (85th). The Jackets improved in points allowed against FBS opponents – 26.5 points per game (tied for 56th) from 30.2 (72nd). After six games of 40 points or more last season, Tech gave up 40 three times this season, including 41 to Georgia in the double overtime loss.
The defensive line, now coached by Mike Pelton (who coached for Roof at Auburn), has made a noticeable difference.
“It’s gone better than I would have (thought),” defensive end Emmanuel Dieke said of the transition. “I wish I could have had (Roof and Pelton) for a couple more years, really. They’re two of the best coaches, honestly, I can say I’ve had since I’ve been playing football.”
The Tech defense shut out Syracuse in a 56-0 win Oct. 19, the first time the Orange had been shut out since 2007. The Jackets held Pittsburgh to minus-5 rushing yards in their 21-10 win Nov. 2, Tech’s best rushing defense performance of the Johnson era.
On the other hand, Miami set an ACC record on the Tech defense Oct. 5, averaging 10.4 yards per play in the Hurricanes’ 45-30 win over the Jackets. On an ESPN Thursday night game Nov. 14, Clemson seared Tech by a 55-31 score. It was the most points the Tigers had piled on Tech since 1903, when John Heisman was Clemson’s coach.
“I think it’s like everything else – it’s been good and not so good,” Johnson said of the defense. “We’ve had some games where we’ve been real good and games that we weren’t. … It’s a work in progress, but overall, I think he’s done a good job.”
Roof’s influence has further been felt in a way that numbers can’t measure. He has brought fire and intensity to the Tech practice field that has spilled over to games. When the defense practices against the offensive scout team, Roof can often be found behind the defense, knees bent, leaning forward on his toes, eyes scanning.
“He looks like he’s back in the game with us,” weakside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “He looks like he’s reading (the offense) and about to come down and make a tackle at times.”
Defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu and strongside linebacker Brandon Watts both used the word “fun” to describe his style and recognized the value of Roof having once been in their shoes.
“He knows how to talk to us, he knows how to handle us,” Watts said. “He knows when to cut back a little bit and makes it fun for us, because he understands us. It makes us want to play harder for him.”
The return home has also proven beneficial for Roof personally. Since leaving Tech for Duke after the 2001 season, following coach George O’Leary’s aborted departure to Notre Dame, Roof had jobs at four schools. Roof’s twin sons Terrence and Michael, freshmen at Buford High, contributed to the Wolves’ state championship season. Being near extended family, he said, “has been really good for our family.”
In year 2, Roof can build on the successes, but he’ll also have to do it without senior starters Attaochu, Watts, Dieke, defensive tackle Euclid Cummings, safety Jemea Thomas and cornerback Louis Young.
The transition may be complete, but the challenges are only beginning.