Welcome to the inaugural Roof Inspection Report, a public service provided by From the Rumble Seat. Each week this season, we’ll take a closer look at the Tech defense to inspect and evaluate each level of the unit—defensive line, linebackers, and secondary—as well as the coaching effort by coordinator Ted Roof. Each will be rated on a scale from Raised to Leaking to Caving In to On Fire. As the season goes along, we’ll make an effort to track progress across the unit and adjustments by the coaching staff to “plug leaks” at all levels.
This edition will take a look at the Monday night opener against Tennessee, in which the Jackets gave up 42 points despite holding the Vols under 400 yards of offense. The latter figure is more representative of how the defense played overall—they got stops at key moments despite constantly working with less-than-ideal field position, and a third of Tennessee’s points came in overtime. However, some clear concerns emerged, particularly in the second half as Tennessee mounted three touchdown drives to tie the game.
Week 1 vs. Tennessee: Defense by the Numbers
|Stat||Total (incl. OT)||Regulation Only|
|Stat||Total (incl. OT)||Regulation Only|
|Total Yards Allowed||369||326|
|Rush Yards Allowed||148||120|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||6.7||7.1|
|Pass Yards Allowed||221||206|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||6.0||5.7|
Three numbers stand out here. The first is the high yards-per-carry figure; while the Vols only had 22 carries as a result of trailing often and running few plays overall, they did significant damage when they did run the ball. That’s a reflection of how the front seven struggled all night to get leverage against Tennessee’s offensive line and close up running lanes.
On a positive note, the defense forced four three-and-outs—two early in the game as part of a stellar first half, and two at key moments in the second half. They were aided by drops by Tennessee’s receivers and some off-target throws, but on two of those drives, Tech forced Tennessee QB Quinten Dormady to complete a pass short of the marker on third down and made a quick tackle to end the drive. That said, the defense did not show any playmaking ability on Monday despite facing an inexperienced quarterback. Even though the secondary nearly snagged a handful of errant passes, the defense ultimately did not force a single turnover and only caused Tennessee to lose yardage on one play in the entire game.
Things went really well for the front four early on—they were generating enough pressure on Dormady to force him to get throws off early, and the line was getting a good enough push against Tennessee’s offensive line to contain running back John Kelly. But they never recorded a sack, and both the pressure in the pass rush and the push against the run faded to the point that Tennessee was almost moving the ball at will by the late stages of the game.
The biggest bright spot was defensive tackle Desmond Branch, who made his presence known in his first career start. He had Tech’s lone tackle for loss on the day, and he was able to penetrate into the backfield on a handful of running plays. He also showed an ability to identify screen plays and nearly blew one up on Tennessee’s final drive... but he got a bit too aggressive and wrapped up the running back, Kelly, before the ball had gotten there, leading to a defensive holding penalty.
Tech had a rotation of KeShun Freeman, Antonio Simmons, and Anree Saint-Amour at the defensive end spots. Simmons and Saint-Amour showed some life in the pass rush, often getting close to the quarterback, but they never put enough pressure on Dormady to even record an official QB hurry.
The biggest concern on defense was the linebacker corps. Aside from a handful of plays, they were simply ineffective and were constantly getting pushed around or overpursuing in run support, which was a major reason that Tennessee’s Kelly had so much room to run. Brant Mitchell made a nice play to deflect a third-down pass on Tennessee’s opening drive and was decent in zone coverage. However, he couldn’t keep up with tight end Evan Wolf on a long pass play that Wolf ultimately dropped, and he was out of position or was quickly taken out by a blocker on several of Kelly’s long runs. Fellow starter Terrell Lewis had a very similar story overall.
Victor Alexander played reasonably well in run support in limited action behind Mitchell and Lewis, so more playing time for him—or the highly touted freshmen—will be on the horizon if the starters don’t improve from this week’s performance.
Status: Leaking, with early warning signs of caving in
If one defensive back’s performance showed promise, it was Lawrence Austin at nickel corner. It was not a perfect game by any stretch, but Austin fared well as a tackler, consistently getting low to bring down the ballcarrier and finishing with a team-high seven tackles. His twin brother, Lance, played reasonably well and came close to snagging one or two interceptions on downfield passes, but he also had trouble making tackles on a few occasions.
As for the rest of the defensive backs... there weren’t too many bright spots. Starting boundary corner Step Durham gave Tech a key third-down stop in the fourth quarter but otherwise had a forgettable game, tackling poorly and getting flagged for pass interference in overtime. His backup, Lamont Simmons, played one drive in the third quarter and got beaten on a touchdown pass when receiver Marquez Callaway high-pointed the ball and Simmons did not react in time to break it up. Free safety A.J. Gray went virtually silent after nearly recording a sack on a first-quarter blitz. Strong safety Corey Griffin simply did not look good, as he took bad pursuit angles on multiple occasions, which contributed to some of the biggest plays by Kelly and Callaway.
The partial cloud hanging over the secondary is that things could have been much, much worse than they were. Tech was able to break up a handful of passes, but Tennessee’s receivers had a huge number of unforced drops as well. The defense can’t count on teams struggling that much in the future if they continue to leave receivers open in the secondary.
Even by Ted Roof’s usual standard, this was a very conservative defensive gameplan. His characteristic soft zone coverage schemes were present throughout the game, which on several occasions enabled Dormady to complete easy passes underneath. On top of that, the blitz packages were very limited. Tech never sent more than five rushers on any play, and aside from a couple plays where Gray blitzed off the edge, it was never anything creative—just one linebacker, either Mitchell or Lewis, rushing either through an A-gap or off the edge. There were also a number of plays—mainly on third downs and when Tennessee was in hurry-up mode late in the first half—when Tech had just three linemen and dropped eight into coverage.
Those three-man rush plays worked in certain situations, but as the game went along and Dormady grew more confident, the lack of pressure proved to be a problem. The defense was able to force a couple stops in the second half, but in general Tennessee was able to move the ball at will by the end. Their run plays were largely the same as in the early going—off-tackle runs, stretch plays, and a few dives with Kelly—but they became more and more effective as the game went along. One element of that was that after Cerge-Henderson left the game with an injury, Roof went with a combination of Desmond Branch and Brentavious Glanton at DT, leaving out nose tackle Brandon Adams and sticking to the two smallest active tackles. The move was understandable on some level, but it put a huge dent in Tech’s ability to defend the run.
The Vols also completed a handful of passes deep downfield, including a 40-yard completion to Callaway on their final scoring drive in which he stepped in front of both Durham and Lance Austin to make the catch. It was a hard one to defend because Callaway high-pointed the catch, but it’s an especially bad look for a team that leans so heavily on deep zone coverage.
Silencing an opposing offense for one half and then letting them run wild in the second half is... not the best look for a coaching staff. It’s true that the players made some mistakes and Tennessee was able to capitalize on them. But the Vols’ comeback also exposed some serious concerns regarding Ted Roof’s conservative coverages and lack of blitz packages.
Status: Leaking in multiple places
As dreary a picture as this assessment may have drawn up, the defense had a respectable performance on Saturday. They definitely fell off a bit in the second half, but with one notable exception, they were constantly handed awful field position. If the kickoff unit had managed a few touchbacks, it’s not unreasonable to believe the defense would have gotten a couple stops and forced Tennessee to kick field goals.
The team has a quick turnaround before Saturday’s game against Jacksonville State, which will not be an easy contest. It does offer a chance to begin rectifying some of the issues that emerged on Monday, though—starting with improved positioning and tackling in the linebacker corps and the secondary. This is a unit that has both the talent and experience to patch them up and become one of the more effective defenses in the ACC... but leaks are springing up, and it will take a collective effort by both the players and coaches to patch them up in time for the start of ACC play in two-plus weeks.