#STINGDAILY: Defensive Cornerstones

Aug. 5, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

As we gaze into a gold crystal ball and try to predict Georgia Tech’s football future, let’s focus on defense, begin with two concepts and build off both.

The cornerstones: head coach Paul Johnson’s theory is that converting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 is not such a big deal; and senior Jeremiah Attaochu believes the Yellow Jackets have talent aplenty to D’ up.

The senior has moved from outside linebacker to defensive end as new coordinator Ted Roof has continued the Yellow Jackets’ transition to the 4-3, although, really, that’s not much of a move. Attaochu is going to be doing much of what he was.

“It’s not rocket science when you’re playing a 4-3,” said Johnson, who thinks the fuss about a 4-3 vs. a 3-4 is overwrought and silly. “We played a 4-3 the last six games of [2012].

“Everybody talks about the new stuff, and it gives you something to talk about, but go back and look at how many times was Jeremiah Attaochu dropping [in coverage] last year? He was rushing the passer; he was lined up in the same spot [he will be as an end].”

No, it’s not rocket science. Yet it doesn’t take a scientist to know that this ship isn’t going anywhere without fuel. Attaochu said that with eight returning starters on defense, and, “a lot of guys who could have helped us last year who redshirted,” Tech has the gas.

“We know our talent. We played with USC (a 21-7 Georgia Tech win in the Sun Bowl) and we played with Florida State (a 21-15 loss in the ACC Championship Game) – teams that get four- and five-star recruits,” he said. “There’s no doubt we have talent; it’s just about putting us into position to use our talent.”

To that end, Attaochu is at end rather than outside linebacker, where Brandon Watts and Quayshawn Nealy are the leading candidates to roam more quickly.

They’re joined by plenty of familiar faces. Tech has 18 seniors, tying 2008 for the most Johnson has had entering a season on The Flats.

The Jackets’ top six tacklers from last season (safeties Isaiah Johnson and Jemea Thomas, middle linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days, Nealy, Watts and Attaochu) are back, and so are Nos. 8 and 9 (cornerback Louis Young and linebacker Daniel Drummond).

This would be a good spot to introduce Roof. In his case, it may be less important that he’s installing a 4-3 and more important that he’s doing it without calculus.

“Guys are flying around,” said Young. “It’s a lot simpler for people to comprehend; we’re not thinking as much. We’re just going out and playing.”

Last season, particularly as the Jackets were losing three consecutive games to Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson, the defense was largely in a daze while surrendering totals of 609, 510 and 601 yards and 42, 49 and 47 points.

That was not entirely due to this year’s veterans not understanding. Roof and the defensive staff are not waiting to bring young players up to speed; everybody is in class.

“We had a lot of injuries, and the real issue was guys stepping into roles they hadn’t played. If you take a closer look at the guys who were missing during those games . . . Quayshawn was hurt, I was hurt, Brandon was hurt,” Attaochu said. “Coach Roof is a guy who teaches everybody.

“It’s simple enough to learn easily, learn quickly when you’re a freshman. The 3-4 was a great system, but when the young guys come in it takes two years to learn. There’s a big learning curve. Coach Roof is a lot simpler.”

Defensive linemen T.J. Barnes and Izaan Cross, and cornerback Rod Sweeting have moved on, and Isaiah Johnson’s return from knee surgery is not certain by season’s open. As coach Johnson said, however, the Jackets have, “a lot of guys who have played football.”

If as Attaochu suggests Roof and the D’ staff are doing a keen job of  putting defenders in positions to succeed, and players are better understanding what is expected of them, and Attaochu is right that there’s more talent on board than some pundits might suggest, then one ingredient remains – chemistry, the great intangible.

Nealy said the Jackets have it going on.

“The leadership is coming from our seniors, Jeremiah Attaochu, Louis Young, Jemea Thomas. They’ve definitely stepped it up,” he said. “This bunch . . . we grew up around each other. We have that bond and camaraderie. We’re building that cohesiveness that we’ve been missing.”

The head coach said on Day One that it’s common for players working under a new coach and system to praise it. He also said, “show me, don’t tell me.”

That makes more sense than assuming improvement, but it sure feels like the Jackets have more to be optimistic about this fall.

“You have to play the games,” Johnson said. “I don’t think anybody knows how good anybody is going to be. [Predictions are] just a crapshoot and a joke . . . I have no idea what it’s based off.

“I like our football team. I think they work hard. I’m hopeful that we’re going to be a little better than people think we are. We’ve got a chance.”

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