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The Upper North Perspective: Roof’s Defense Set to Catch Fire

Ted Roof’s 2016 defense will be Georgia Tech’s best in recent memory.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech
AJ Gray will be the leader in the secondary for GT in 2016.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Roof’s Defense Set to Catch Fire

The Upper North Perspective is back for another round to cut the jams with a wave of the hand for a column so fresh it will make you stand…..

Hold up. Typing that title put me on another level could not stop the rhymes. Let’s try this again.

Welcome back as I finally deliver the column I have been promising for weeks. This week, I am diving into Coach Roof’s 2016 Georgia Tech defensive unit.

What if I told you that this year will be the best unit Coach Roof has put on the field at Georgia Tech? What if I even said that this will be the best defense Tech fans have seen on the Flats since that deep 2008 group?

This defense is replacing a lot of key pieces, but the staff has prepped and planned for this day. Today, I tell you why the strategy of the defensive coaching staff has paid off, and Tech fans will be rewarded with a defense that will deliver in a big way in 2016.

Quick History Review

We all know that the defense has not been a strong suit for Georgia Tech since Coach Johnson arrived on the Flats. CPJ churned through both Dave Wommack and Al Groh before sticking with Ted Roof for the past three years. Wommack produced a solid defense (with great talent) that the team leaned on in 2008, but that same defense seemed to underperform in the 2009 ACC championship season. The offseason led to his departure, and Al Groh came in with some quickly departing excitement as things just never seemed to find a way to work. He was dismissed mid-2012 after some up and down seasons, terrible results to starts 2012, and behind closed doors dissension. Charles Kelly filled in admirably in the interim and helped the defense end the year on a positive note.

Ted Roof arrived in 2013 and delivered a statistically impressive defense spearheaded by the amazing Jeremiah Attaochu. This defense only really struggled in forcing turnovers to affect turnover margin. This margin hampered what was an otherwise effective year. In 2014, the defense took major steps back in every key category except turnover margin. Tech finished with 29 forced turnovers (+11). The stats for this group look worse than how the unit finished 2014. They played very well down the stretch and followed the lead of that dynamic 2014 offense to provide a truly special season.

2015 saw the Jackets improve in Total Defense (42nd from 79th), stay the same or similar in most major categories including scoring D (51st), and fall off majorly in turnovers with only 17 forced. Though the defense was similar statistically, the lack of turnovers magnified some of the other issues, most notably getting to the QB, of the defense.

Talent and Leadership

The staff’s recruiting efforts has developed a talent ready defense for this season despite the lack of experience on the back end. The back end is led by a supremely talented sophomore. AJ Gray steps in as a starting safety this season with some excitement. This is not simply fan excitement; Coach Paul Johnson increased his expectations at the ACC Kickoff by describing Gray as a future all time great at Tech. These comments should never be taken lightly from CPJ because we do not get statements like this often. He played instinctive football last season, and he will be more prepared mentally with a full year under his belt. This guy is big time. Though there is a lack of starting experience, Gray will have this group ready to go day one. I like this group just as much as the one that just left, and AJ Gray can take this group to new heights.

Brant Mitchell, another sophomore, may be the best true linebacker that we have seen here on the Flats under CPJ. He and PJ Davis will form a pretty great tandem at the linebacker position for 2016. Georgia Tech will get a ton of production out of this dynamic duo throughout the year and should be able to help control the middle of the defense with the defensive line. The defensive line is as deep as GT has had in recent memory with a true first and second team at every spot on the defensive line. Pat Gamble and KeShun Freeman are the leaders, but there is enough young talent to provide depth and step up.

What Do I Expect?

All Georgia Tech fans have similar feelings about our most recent defenses. GT has seemingly failed to get to the QB without Jeremiah Attaochu in recent years. Tech has been thin on the defensive line and seemingly gashed and pounded at will by teams with strong running games. The corners play receivers with too large of a cushion to basically concede short, quick passing routes.

I believe all of these things improve this season. I cannot change Coach Roof’s defensive philosophy, but I do think the defense will perform well enough to enable more flexibility with cornerback positioning.

I expect this defense to rival the 2008 group with defensive production. I think this group has that much potential and will get it done on the field. This means Tech will surpass the defensive results of Coach Ted Roof’s recent defenses here on the Flats because they will finally put it all together. This defense will be fundamentally sound across every level and category. The coaches have recruited and planned to get this defense in a position to play at a high level, and this year we will see those results.

It starts up front with the depth of our defensive line and the linebacker duo. Teams will not be able to line up and gash at will. This defense will get into the backfield and cause opposing offenses to play in 2nd and 3rd and long at a higher rate. With Pat Gamble, Francis Kallon, and the other DTs establishing a presence up front, it will enable the rest of the defense to be more aggressive. When Rod Rook-Chungong establishes the edge to force backs inside, our linebackers will clean up. This is the fundamentally sound defense Tech will see.

The best defense Tech has had under Roof in Scoring D and Total D was in 2013 at 22.8 PPG and 360 YPG (also the best outside of 2008). I expect this group to better those totals. Only five teams on the schedule, Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, UGA, and, to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh, present the threat to hang a lot of points on a defense. This small group provides Tech’s defense with some wiggle room and seven games to truly flex their muscles. I am calling for this defense to finish at 22.5 PPG allowed which would have ranked 32nd in scoring D last season. This group will also see a slight improvement in Total Defense down to 350 YPG, or ~30 overall nationally.

Sacks and turnovers are two of my favorite defensives statistics. Getting to the QB is essential for establishing a dominant defensive presence, and GT has simply not done that recently. I am standing up here to say that this group WILL GET TO THE QB. I have no doubt that this group is going to sack the QB regularly. After only forcing 14 sacks total last season, I expect this group to more than double this number in 2016. KeShun Freeman will have a resurgence in his junior year to lead the team in sacks, but Anree Saint-Amour will do his fair share to push Freeman for the team lead. With these two leading the charge, the pass rush is in the best position it has been in by a tandem since Derrick Morgan and Michael Johnson. Throw in Antonio Simmons, and Tech has a very talented pass rushing group. I expect to see this group attract double teams from opposing OL with RBs and TEs actively staying in to chip block opening up the push from the middle and delaying underneath routes. The collective effort of this group will average 2.5 sacks per game which would put this defense ranking around 30th in the nation and finishing with 35 sacks in 14 games.

The increased number of sacks and scoring efficiency on offense will help to force more turnovers this season. The 2016 defense may not force turnovers with the fervor of the 2014 group; that pace would be hard for any team to replicate. I do look for the pressure on the QB to enable guys like AJ Gray, Step Durham, and the Austin twins to take a few more chances and get more 50/50 balls thrown their way. Our DL and LB will be able to attack and seize opportunities rather than playing timid. This group will deliver a ball-hawking pursuit defense for Coach Roof. I expect turnovers forced to be in the mid-20’s with GT finishing with a positive turnover margin as the offense protects the ball much better again this season.

I am optimistic for the performance of Ted Roof’s defense this season. The stars are aligned for the defense to have a very solid and effective year. I expect this group to finish in the top 30 of these major categories and give CPJ his first formidable defense top to bottom since 2008. If this happens, the ACC and the nation need to watch out for what can (and will) happen this season.