By Jack Williams
Looking at it one way, there are about 770 reasons why the Georgia Tech defense will be greatly improved this football season. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof would settle for just two or three.
“770! That’s how many snaps freshman linebacker Recardo Wimbush played last season,” said Roof. “That’s a perfect example of the experience gained by our young defense in 1999. In football, there’s no substitute for experience-and we got our share last season.”
The Jackets return 10 starters and a total of 20 lettermen on the defensive side of the ball. But everyone knows there is room for improvement.
Although Tech posted an 8-4 record and played in a third straight bowl game (a 28-13 loss to Miami of Florida in the Gator), the 1999 Jackets’ defense quite often took some big hits. Tech yielded a total of 361 points, an average of 30 a game.
Roof, however, approaches the new season with supreme confidence. “We will be much improved,” he said. “There is no doubt about it. We have a lot of experienced players back to lead the way. We still have to go play the games and prove ourselves, but I feel good about the defensive situation.
“I also expect to show improvement myself as linebacker coach and the same goes for the other coaches. It has always been my belief that if we are going to count on the players to improve as a football team, then it is our responsibility as coaches to keep getting better.”
Working with Roof as defensive coaches on head coach George O’Leary’s staff are Danny Crossman, ends; Paul Ferraro, secondary; and Dave Sollazzo, tackles.
It will not take Tech long to get some answers about the 2000 defense. Just look where the Jackets go for their first game. They travel to Blacksburg, Va., Aug. 27 for the Black Coaches’ Association Bowl game, squaring off against Virginia Tech, last season’s National Championship game runner-up, and the team’s sensational quarterback, Michael Vick.
“In the first game of a new season, Vick’s not exactly the opponent we would have ordered.” Roof said, jokingly. “In fact, he’s good enough to make any defense in the country look bad. He’s the favorite for the Heisman Trophy.
“But the truth is that’s really the kind of challenge we want. Now that we have a top level program at Georgia Tech, we want to be the only show in town, to play the best teams on national TV. That’s the kind of atmosphere you strive for in football.” Roof, a former Tech football star who is heading into his second season as coordinator, talks about his defensive leaders in glowing terms.
“Wimbush is one whom we expect will really be improved,” he said. “Recardo has put on 15 pounds (up to 224) and that is going to be a big plus for him. But he’s just one whom we count on for leadership.
“We have two outstanding safeties in (Chris) Young and (Jeremy) Muyres. They are guys who are physical against the run and have good coverage skills in the secondary. Linebacker (Matt) Miller has been through it and done it all. He’s going to have a good season. So are (Felipe) Claybrooks and (Greg) Gathers at defensive ends. Claybrooks really had a good off-season and showed leadership abilities. Gathers was second team all-ACC last season and will be better. (Guenter) Kryszon, at tackle, probably got more out of his ability than any man on the squad. And I’m saying that strictly as a compliment.”
Other returning starters who draw the coach’s praise are tackle Merrix Watson, linebacker Ross Mitchell and cornerback Jamara Clark.
Roof also has special things to say about two defenders who are not returning starters- end Nick Rogers, a backup last season; and linebacker Ather Brown, who was a redshirt freshman last season.
“Rogers can become a consistent force on this team,” Roof said, “and Brown is a solid worker who is going to be a very good football player.”
Although Roof rates the Tech recruiting class as “extremely good,” he says it’s too early to judge the individual players. “I think, in time, we will know that this was an excellent class,” he said.
Although the Tech defense of 1999 had its share of problems, there were some really bright spots.
“I think the big plays the defense made sometimes get overlooked when you consider the whole picture,” he said. “Our defense stopped North Carolina on a goal-line stand and helped us win the game. We stopped Georgia at the goal and later intercepted a pass in overtime to help beat the Bulldogs. There were many big plays in other games, too.”
Roof knows a thing or two about playing good defense. He was an all-Atlantic Coast Conference linebacker on Jacket teams in the 1980s and was inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. He had 417 career tackles.
“My defensive philosophy is really quite simple,” he said. “If you have players who give great effort and show some toughness, you usually will be just fine. We want to be aggressive and dictate the way the game is played rather than letting our opponents have that opportunity.”
After coaching at West Georgia, Duke, Western Carolina and Massachusetts, Roof came home to Coach O’Leary’s Tech staff in 1998 as linebacker coach. He was promoted to coordinator for the 1999 campaign.
Now, with the new season fast approaching, he’s sitting on GO. He firmly believes Tech will have an improved defense. It’s almost time for his players to prove it.