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Preparing for the Worst: What if Woody’s defense doesn’t fit?

Possibly our worst fear come alive...

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

Nate Woody knows how to coach a defense. This much we know because of his steady rise through the coaching ranks with a venerable 28-year coaching career in D1 football, starting at Wofford, continuing to Appalachian State, and now at Georgia Tech. Woody preaches an aggressive version of the 3-4 defense, a foil to former defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s cushiony 4-2-5 that Yellow Jackets fans have become desensitized to over the last few years. Under Woody, CBs turn into ballhawks, LBs and DEs become mobile fumble generating machines, and DTs evolve into ball-carrier-seeking missiles. In his last year at App State, Woody and his defense forced opposing offenses into mistakes, ranking 17th overall nationally in turnovers generated. In Woody’s world, if your offense makes a mistake, he will make you pay for it in blood points.

But what if this approach doesn’t work? More specifically, what if the Tech defense isn’t fully adapted to its new scheme by the start of September? What happens if our existing roster just can’t move quick enough to fit his scheme?

I think it’s important to establish the tenets of Woody’s 3-4 defense and what he expects from players at each level of the defense before we talk about our bizarro scenario.

Core Idea

Woody’s defense prioritizes aggressiveness in the front 7 in order to disrupt modern college football’s dynamic offenses. These offenses pose a fundamental problem for the modern defensive coordinator: “misdirections and ball fakes that keep defenses on their heels combined with option plays and quick throws to speedy receivers” require more defenders in the box to guard against the run, but if you pack the box, you could leave your secondary out to dry and give up short- to mid-range high-percentage throws. A good defensive coordinator must therefore create a scheme that not only limits the option running game, but also eliminates the ‘release valve’ of throws into the flat. How does Woody set this up? All of the following defensive adjustments are built around causing as much pressure upfront as possible. The underlying goal is to limit the amount of time that the opposing quarterback has to analyze the coverage and force him to make a poor decision with the ball. Woody emphasizes this point: “The more time the QB is hurried the higher the percentage of incompletions and turnovers....For us to rush four and get pressure on the QB it’s better to change up which defender is the fourth rusher. The 3-4 defense is the best way for us to accomplish this.”

Speedy defensive ends

Woody wants his defensive line to be the “faster defenders on the field”. He aligns the ends directly across the offensive tackles -- attacking the tackles 1:1 prevents double-teams, so the only point of concern is how quick the ends can get off their blocks and to the ball-carrier. In short, “Quick hands and feet make better pass rushers.” The modern offensive lineman is 300+ pounds and attacking him head-on with a defender of similar stature and expecting the defender to win via sheer strength is a bog a defense can get seriously mired in. Speed on the edges is better than size in Woody’s mind.

Size matters at NT

But in the center of the line, size becomes more important. Woody’s nose tackle “may be the most critical position in our defense”, aligned directly across from the center and susceptible to double-teams by the center and either guard. Woody notes, “Finding a bigger guy that can still move quickly and with good balance is the hardest player for us to recruit.”

Smaller, faster OLBs

In Woody’s scheme, two outside linebackers line up within the tackle box. This makes offensive game-planning more difficult: will these LBs drop into coverage, or put more pressure on the offensive line and QB? Having fast running-back- or safety-sized LBs helps keep the base personnel on the field rather than complicating things by adding nickel and dime defensive backs in the secondary in passing situations. The smaller size of Woody’s LBs also means that they are more versatile defenders, regardless of whether they are playing on the interior or the edge. Even though interior LBs in Woody’s system tend to have a bit more meat on their bones, their athleticism allows them to both “take on blocks from linemen” or drop into coverage like an extra safety or corner. Similar to his time at Wofford, Woody has a cadre of smaller role players at his disposal at Tech, which makes this sort of flexibility a necessity, but, in his opinion, it is also an advantage. Speedier players in standup positions and overall positional flexibility makes it easier to disguise defensive play-calling, making moves like blitzes more effective and generally turning up the heat on opposing offenses.

Role players in the secondary

Woody assigns his defensive backs to the boundary (IE: the edge) or field (the center of the field). One corner covers the interior routes, while the other watches over sideline go routes or shorter routes into the flat. This setup is coupled with a safety on the short side of the field and another safety to the wide side of the field. When dropping into coverage, the boundary corner, his supplementary safety, and the outside linebackers watch receivers running routes along the sidelines. In the center of the field, the field corner, his safety, and the inside linebackers cover short- to mid-range central routes.

The reality is that if Tech can’t fit its players to the archetypes that Woody requires to run his defense, Tech will suffer tremendously. There is no simple way of putting that. A maladjusted 3-4 defense probably gets GT through its opening games versus Alcorn State and USF, but starting conference play at Pittsburgh with a leaky defense will cause some issues. Clemson’s offense (regardless of who starts at quarterback) will make a meal out of a defense that’s not quick enough to crash down on their RPO. Bowling Green may provide a respite and an opportunity to shore up defensive weaknesses, but beyond that, the rest of the slate looks daunting: resurgent Duke, VPISU, and UNC teams, combined with strong Miami and u[sic]ga sides will create mismatches across the defense and outmuscle even the toughest of Tech defenders. This reality would not be pretty.

Transitioning from a 4-2-5 defense to a 3-4 is no doubt difficult, but I am confident that Tech’s roster is up to the challenge -- in fact, it looks like our current defensive linemen have taken to it well. However, the fact remains that if Tech’s available players don’t fit Woody’s required player personas to execute his scheme properly, we’re in for a rough season.

If you want to learn more about Nate Woody’s defense, read about what he installed at Wofford from the man himself.

h/t to for their feature on Nate Woody