The first outing for Nate Woody’s defense was a resounding success. The second was... quite the opposite.
The Jackets enter the ACC slate reeling from a 49-38 loss in which the kick coverage unit gave up two early touchdowns and the defense got shredded in the second half. There aren’t too many positives to take away from the loss, but there are plenty of lessons to be gleaned from the results.
Defense by the Numbers: Week 2 vs. USF
|Points per Possession||3.2|
|Total Yards Allowed||426|
|Rush Yards Allowed||224|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||5.1|
|Pass Yards Allowed||202|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||6.5|
|Opp. Yards per Play||5.7|
|Third Down Conversions||6/11|
|Fourth Down Conversions||1/2|
The numbers aren’t pretty. Allowing 224 yards on the ground to a team with a fairly balanced offense is a recipe for disaster. Both the havoc rate and (especially) the stuff rate are way down from a week earlier; that in itself is not a surprise, given the difference in caliber of opponent, but the new figures are still distressingly low. A healthy havoc rate is at least 15%, and there are specific moments that the team can point to that could have bumped up the rate: a would-be interception that was just out of reach, several missed tackles in the backfield, and others. As for the stuff rate, a defense that prides itself on being disruptive needs to do better than getting to the runner in the backfield 11 percent of the time.
The biggest bright spot on defense was senior nose tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson, who got a rare opportunity to play in his hometown of Tampa and almost singlehandedly stifled two of USF’s second-quarter drives. When USF got the ball on the Tech 45-yard line following a shanked punt, Cerge-Henderson got a sack on second down and stuffed Barnett in the backfield when the QB tried to run on third down. Later that quarter, the senior broke free in the backfield and dragged Barnett down for a seven-yard sack, effectively taking USF out of field goal range. Cerge-Henderson finished the day with six tackles, including those three tackles for loss and two sacks.
That was about the only positive in a forgettable day for the defensive line. They struggled all day to get leverage against USF’s offensive line, ultimately allowing the Bulls to rack up over five yards per carry (which isn’t entirely on the line, but their struggles were a major factor). USF’s talent at the skill positions was no secret, but it’s alarming that Tech had so much trouble in the trenches too.
USF racked up 224 yards on the ground on Saturday, and a huge chunk of it was due to bad tackling at every level of the Tech defense. The inside linebackers were no exception. There were several occasions where senior Brant Mitchell was in position to make a tackle to hold USF to a loss or a short gain, but he couldn’t quite finish. David Curry had a better day—at least up until he was ejected for targeting and was replaced by true freshman Quez Jackson. All three struggled at times with gap discipline and were simply not where they needed to be at times, leaving running lanes open.
The most telling stat was the number of havoc plays from the ILBs: zero. That’s simply not good enough in a defense where the linebackers are counted on to make plays. This unit should get a boost when Bruce Jordan-Swilling is back in the lineup, but the issues with tackling form have persisted for years. There’s a lot of work ahead.
The Sting linebackers (safety/LB hybrids) were decent, if nothing special. Jalen Johnson and Christian Campbell combined for nine tackles, and Johnson had a tackle for loss in the fourth quarter. But they weren’t much use in the pass rush, and the scheme generally left them out of position to disrupt anything when they were in coverage (more on that further below).
The Jack linebackers, meanwhile, were almost invisible in the pass rush and had zero havoc plays on the day. Senior Victor Alexander frequently overran the play as a pass rusher, running well past Barnett and essentially taking himself out of the action. He was spelled often by Jordan Domineck, and while Domineck showed better form in the pass rush, it’s generally not a good sign when a third-string true freshman is getting snaps over a senior starter in a close game.
There’s a good amount of talent at the OLB positions for Tech, but the performance on Saturday was concerning, to say the least. They’ll need to improve, particularly in the pass rush, for Tech to succeed in ACC play.
There was only one play of note from this unit: Ajani Kerr made a pass breakup while in single coverage in the end zone on a deep pass in the fourth quarter, preventing USF from taking the lead (though they went on to score later on that drive). Beyond that, the corners were sitting in zones for most of the day and mostly found themselves making quick tackles after completions rather than aggressively playing the ball. Field corner Jaytlin Askew took a step back after his breakout performance a week ago and struggled with tackling, and he ceded playing time late in the game to the tandem of Kerr and Tre Swilling. It was only the second start of Askew’s career, and he’s already shown good tackling ability, so he should be able to rebound.
Strong safety Tariq Carpenter forced the only USF turnover of the day when he intercepted Barnett on the Bulls’ opening drive. His day didn’t last much longer, though; on the third play of USF’s second possession, Carpenter was ejected for targeting on a call that was... questionable, to put it mildly. Stepping into the void was Kaleb Oliver, who had been the star of the opener against Alcorn State. However, head coach Paul Johnson said after the game that Oliver was playing on little rest (he had traveled separately from the team to attend a funeral, and his flight to Tampa was delayed), and he understandably wasn’t at full speed in this one.
Two games is still a relatively small sample, but it’s enough to get a sense of what Woody’s defense will look like from a schematic standpoint.
It made sense for Tech to reach far down the depth chart in the Alcorn State game, but some of the personnel choices against USF were surprising, to say the least. This was especially true along the defensive line, where a variety of new faces saw the field, some at utterly bizarre times. There were two series where Woody trotted out a line of true freshman Justice Dingle and reserve nose tackle Chris Martin at the ends with Cerge-Henderson in the middle; as strange of a combination as it was, something in there worked, as those two series ended in USF punts.
Late in the fourth quarter, USF scored its go-ahead touchdown on a play where Tech had Dingle and walk-on Antonio Mallard out there as the two defensive ends, with Brentavious Glanton at the nose (even though Glanton had been playing at end for most of fall camp). Why that trio was on the field in lieu of the first-string, or even second-string, linemen is anyone’s guess.
The linebacker and defensive back rotations appear to be a bit more clear-cut, with one or two players dominating playing time at every position.
Good news: the blitz packages are much more creative than they were in the Roof era. The 3-4 front has the advantage of disguising where the fourth rusher will come from, and Woody likes to mix it up, sending the Jack linebacker a plurality of the time but also sending the Sting linebacker, one of the ILBs, or even the boundary corner. He’s also more creative with overall blitz packages,
Bad news: it hardly mattered on Saturday. Both of Tech’s sacks came on plays where they sent only four rushers. On plenty of occasions, a pass rusher came within inches of getting to Barnett, only to have the quarterback slip away and either run for positive yardage or roll out and find a receiver downfield. At least on paper, the scheme seems to be putting guys in position to get to the quarterback... but that won’t matter until they learn to finish properly, and that will be somewhat of a process for this unit.
This is where the short-term concerns lie. Almost every time he sends just four rushers, Woody has his defensive backs staying back in Cover 3 with linebackers helping out in medium zones. That’s useful for preventing big plays over the top, but it leaves all sorts of things open underneath.
Take, for example, a third-and-2 play early in the third quarter. The corners and safeties were all playing at least 5-6 yards off the ball. Barnett connected with Tyre McCants on a short pass on the right side, and there was nobody within seven yards of him in any direction:
McCants broke toward the sideline and used his edge blocker to turn this play into a huge gain. Even if he had simply turned and run directly toward the end zone, he would have gained at least seven yards simply because nobody was in the area.
It’s concerning not just because it evokes memories of the Roof bend-and-snap era, but also because of what it implies about Woody’s present faith in his unit. If he trusted the front seven to get pressure quickly on a given play, he would likely feel more comfortable leaving his defensive backs in man coverage more often. Instead, he leans heavily on soft zones to seemingly hedge his bets. In some cases, that’s useful; Carpenter’s first-quarter pick came on a play where he was playing a short zone. But that approach is very vulnerable to pass plays underneath the zones, and that coupled with Tech’s tackling issues makes for a dangerous combination.
Rough as the USF loss was from a defensive standpoint, it’s far too soon to pass judgment on Woody as a coordinator. Some of the early cracks in the defense have been exposed: tackling issues, gap discipline, and possibly an overreliance on zone coverage. As Tech dives into the ACC slate, it’ll be worth monitoring how Woody handles all of these and how well Tech improves in these areas over time.