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Explaining the Inexplicable

There’s a not-great phenomenon we’re seeing on the Yellow Jackets’ defense.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

There are two position groupings on a football team that far-and-away benefit from more time and reps of playing together — the offensive line, and the secondary.

In that sense, even before we consider the time it takes to acquire the right body types and develop them in the strength and conditioning program, it’s understandable that Georgia Tech’s offensive line is still far from a finished product in Year 3 under Geoff Collins.

What’s less understandable is when a group like Georgia Tech’s secondary, which has seen incredible continuity throughout the Collins era and is arguably its single most talented position group on the roster, seemingly has gotten worse year-over-year. Even more baffling is that it’s happening under a head coach whose background is as a good defensive coordinator, and specifically one who had a strong track record of developing defensive backs prior to his arrival on the Flats.

Take a look at the individuals who made up the starting lineup (or were the most Above the Line, or whatever we’re going with at this point) for Collins’ first game as the Yellow Jackets’ head coach against Clemson in September of 2019:

Of the five individuals who started in the secondary in Collins’ first game at Georgia Tech, four of them are still with the program and saw significant time in Collins’ 30th game as head coach against Virginia Tech this past weekend. That’s great continuity!

So why is it, then, that in Year 3, with so many familiar faces, in a position grouping that benefits from continuity, we’re seeing images like this on an increasingly common basis?

It’s happened in each of the last four games where there are miscommunications or misunderstandings that result in receivers running wide open, easy throws, big gains, extended drives, and points on the board for Georgia Tech’s opponents.

It’s not just one or two plays per game, either. In the first 26 games under Collins, only TWICE did the Yellow Jackets’ defense give up 9+ yards per passing attempt in games where they saw opponents attempt at least 20 passes — UCF in 2020, and Clemson in 2020.

That mark of 9 yards per attempt, with a minimum of 20 attempts? It’s been surpassed now by four straight opponents. In 2021 contests against Pittsburgh, Duke, Virginia, and Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech’s defense has allowed a combined 67.2% completion for 1,341 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, only 1 interception, and all to the tune of 10.01 yards per pass attempt. (For context, only one FBS team is giving up more than 10.01 yards per attempt for the entire season, and it’s UMass.) The past four games have been, by far, the worst stretch of passing defense games that the team has had in the Collins era. For this to be occurring, with such a talented and experienced unit, is pretty inexplicable and frustrating to watch.

Georgia Tech’s pass defense struggles aren’t exclusively the secondary’s responsibility, as the defensive front has also struggled in a big way to create pressure on quarterbacks during the same 4-game stretch. Over the last 4 games, the defense playing for the head coach whose nickname was historically the “Minister of Mayhem” has come up with 5 total sacks. Your mileage may vary on whether 1.25 sacks per game constitutes “mayhem” or not.

Unfortunately, the lack of pressure doesn’t explain receivers running free shortly after the start of plays — again, that’s on the defensive backfield.

Now, this is the part in the column where you may be thinking that I’m a jerk for blaming the players for these performances. As always, if you think I blame the players for any of this, you’d be wrong. I believe that the players are doing their best and giving their best efforts, and are fully committed to playing as well as they know how to.

Once again, as with so many issues we’ve seen throughout the Collins era, this comes down to coaching issues.

There are four coaches that have some level of responsibility for the success of the secondary — Collins, DC Andrew Thacker, Co-DC/Safeties Coach Nate Burton, and Cornerbacks Coach Jeff Popovich. That brain trust has spent nearly 3 calendar years working with this unit, whose personnel is (again) arguably the most talented group on the roster, and whose continuity has been as good as anyone has asked for. The result? A group that’s getting shredded worse than they ever have before, looks confused on where to be, and seems to be having issues that are getting worse instead of better.

The yards and points that this group is surrendering aren’t because they’re going against players who are bigger, faster, or stronger than them. They’re not because the Yellow Jackets’ players aren’t trying. It’s some combination of scheme, teaching, personnel groupings, and maybe even accountability that is resulting in the issues occurring, and each of those are things that fall on the coaching staff to own and drive.

I don’t know what type of teaching or direction the players are getting, what communication styles or language they’re being taught, or even if the scheme is just too complicated to try and run with college players who have a limited amount of practice time that they’re allowed in between their studies and other commitments. What I do know is that the four grown men listed above are paid far higher salaries than most of us will ever make to guide a group of players in a fashion that gets results better than they’re getting recently.

If that doesn’t change soon, we should hope that there’s a change in (at least some of) the individuals responsible.

Get more of my thoughts on Georgia Tech’s loss to Virginia Tech, their upcoming matchup with Miami, and all of the other action across the ACC by subscribing to Basketball Conference: The ACC Football Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or anywhere else you normally find podcasts.