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Football: Talent Isn’t Limiting Georgia Tech’s Defense

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The mystery of the Yellow Jackets’ defensive struggles has been solved!

NCAA Football: Duke at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an old phrase in football when it comes to evaluating team performance, suggesting that any issues are attributed to either “Jimmies and Joes” or “X’s and O’s”. (If you’ve ever gotten in an argument over whether or not Paul Johnson should still be the head coach at Georgia Tech, this is a phrase that’s probably come up.) Effectively, the question is whether any deficiencies should be blamed on insufficient personnel, or an insufficient scheme.

As long as Paul Johnson has been at Georgia Tech, the defense has been more suspect than the offense, regardless of what various media members or internet comment sections would lead you to believe. (Johnson’s offense makes Georgia Tech’s team unique on the national stage. It is not the exclusive reason for the results of the team’s games.) That offense, while not always pretty or effective, has generally been able to produce points and has made the most of its opportunities with the ball. Meanwhile, the defense has often struggled with keeping opponents off of the scoreboard.

That trend has spanned across three defensive coordinators and 8 full seasons of football. Here’s a look at the yards per play given up by Georgia Tech’s defense against FBS competition in Paul Johnson’s tenure, and how it ranks nationally:

Year Yds/Play vs. FBS National Rank
2015 5.99 92
2014 6.38 110
2013 5.81 78
2012 5.84 74
2011 5.65 67
2010 5.77 72
2009 6.25 103
2008 5.05 42

This issue has perplexed me for years now. Three different coordinators later, and countless players taking the field on defense later, the defense has almost exclusively performed at a below-average level for nearly a decade. (On average, they’ve ranked 80th nationally in the yards per play allowed to FBS competition, dropping to around 85th since the start of the 2009 season.) At the same time, these same defenses have seen several players drafted through the years, and there’s never been a glaring recruiting issue on defense, where several of Johnson’s highest-rated recruits have been. (Of 12 Rivals 4-star recruits to sign under Johnson, including 2008, 8 have been defensive players.)

Here’s a look at the defensive players drafted that have played at Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson:

Year Player
2016 DT Adam Gotsis
2016 CB D.J. White
2014 DE/LB Jeremiah Attaochu
2014 DB Jemea Thomas
2014 LB Brandon Watts
2010 DE Derrick Morgan
2010 DB Morgan Burnett
2009 DT Vance Walker
2009 DE Michael Johnson
2009 DT Darryl Richard

So, as much as there doesn’t seem to be a talent issue, I’ve also never been able to rationalize a coaching issue on defense (at least under Ted Roof — Dave Wommack and Al Groh were different stories).

Then, there was Saturday’s game.

Specifically, there was the Mercer drive directly following halftime.

Georgia Tech came out of halftime with a 21-7 lead, with Mercer due to get the ball. The Bears subsequently went on a 17-play drive, gaining 61 yards and eventually kicking a field goal. Among those 17 plays, I counted no fewer than 5 screen passes (including things like bubble screens) — and may have counted more if ESPN had something that qualified as an acceptable video player upon checking the replay. They converted a trio of third downs, and tacked on a fourth down conversion — two of those coming on screen passes. Towards the end of the drive, the Bears were repeatedly going to screen passes with consistent success. There was no secret about what they were trying to do, and Georgia Tech looked completely lost in trying to stop it.

(Keep in mind, by the way, that this is the FCS Mercer Bears we’re talking about. Not the Clemson Tigers or North Carolina Tar Heels or Miami Hurricanes who have way more talent and are every bit as likely to employ some of these tactics.)

It was some point late in that absolutely maddening drive, probably around the third Bears first down, that I tweeted this:

It was also around that time that I came to the conclusion that Georgia Tech’s defensive issues aren’t personnel-related — they’re coaching related.

Time and time again, Mercer ran simple screen passes, and time and time again, the defense was out of position to defend them and got burned by them. The Yellow Jackets’ players were obviously superior to Mercer’s, and yet the Bears were gashing the Jackets for yards and first downs like the talent advantage was reversed.

There’s the old saying “fool me once, shame on you — fool me twice, shame on me”. The true shame is that this saying doesn’t get drawn out to dictate who’s to blame for being fooled around half a dozen times, because at some point the defensive coordinator and his staff have to be held accountable for failing to adjust to an obvious strategy.

So, it’s dawned on me. While this defense has never been loaded with elite talent, and isn’t able to win games on talent alone, that’s not their issue and never has been. Deficiencies on defense are, and always have been, a coaching issue. A conservative scheme that hardly adjusts to offensive strategies is the culprit of defensive struggles this year.

Until further notice, if you see the opponent start to rack up yards and points, don’t look to Pat Gamble, KeShun Freeman, Brant Mitchell, Step Durham, or A.J. Gray when looking to place blame. Instead, look to Ted Roof and his staff. That’s a much better starting point when you’re trying to address issues.

This weekend, Georgia Tech hosts Vanderbilt, which brings an offense that is hardly shy about its identity and is hardly one of the most talented units the Yellow Jackets will face this season. Look for a good performance from the defense at home on Saturday, or look to Ted Roof for answers on why that isn’t the case.