Jan. 10, 2018
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
In five games between 1997 and 2001, Georgia Southern walloped Wofford, 194-58, an average of 27.2 points per game.
In hindsight, then-GSU head coach Paul Johnson could have told Nate Woody, who was on Wofford’s defensive staff at the time (including as the Terriers’ defensive coordinator for the final two seasons of Johnson’s tenure in Statesboro), “Some day, we’ll look back on this and laugh.”
Tuesday afternoon at the Rice Center, that day arrived, as Johnson introduced Woody as his program’s new defensive coordinator.
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“He used to beat the dog out of us,” said Woody, with a laugh. “So when he asked me if I’d be interested in this job, I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was joking.”
Turning to Johnson, he asked, “I don’t know, Coach, do you remember — was there a game that was even close?”
Johnson didn’t reply for several seconds, bringing on big laughs, before admitting, “It wasn’t a fair fight.”
Maybe not, but, Johnson still liked the fighting spirit of Woody’s defenses and, more than anything, the system they played.
“When I was at Georgia Southern, the Georgia Southerns, Appalachian States and Furmans of the world had far better players [than Wofford, a fledgling NCAA Division I-AA program at the time] but they were still very competitive, they always were sound,” he said. “The big question for me on defense is when I turn the tape on and I watch it, can I figure out what they’re doing? You could see they had a system. I’ve watched them play Clemson on tape through the years, I’ve watched them play Georgia, I’ve watched them play teams that we play and you could see the method to the madness. You could see what they’re trying to accomplish and what they were doing and how they were coached. So I fully expect him to run his scheme and do that.”
That scheme that Woody implemented as Wofford’s coordinator from 2000-12, then for the last five years at Appalachian State, is an aggressive 3-4 defense that’s always in attack mode.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully building on a defense that gets after it and just has an awful lot of fun playing out there, whether it’s [in] practice or games,” said the 57-year-old who boasts 27 years of collegiate coaching experience. “Guys that are having fun generally are going to be successful.
“If I could get guys that have speed and quickness, those guys were able to disrupt plays before plays were able to get underway,” he added. “So what we wanted to do was get guys that could play certain blocks and beat those blocks and penetrate and get into the backfield quickly. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get the quality of athleticism right for each position. I’ve been at places where it wasn’t always the easiest to recruit but we were able to find the guys that we needed and make it happen.”
Woody believes that there is a specific type of player for his defense.
“I want guys that can move and attack,” he said. “Speed, quickness, processing, all those things matter.”
That type is fine with Johnson.
“I want guys to be unencumbered, play fast, know how to get lined up, run to the ball, create some negative plays and have fun doing it,” he said. “It’s not quite that simple, but it fits kind of what I’m looking for overall and I think that he has that background and the track record to show that he’s gotten it done at different places. When you watch the tape, you can see it.”
Woody’s teams at App State certainly did.
Over his final four seasons in Boone, N.C., Appalachian’s first full-fledged campaigns as members of NCAA Division I FBS, the Mountaineers consistently ranked among the nation’s top 30 in total, scoring, rushing and passing defense, led the Sun Belt Conference in total defense three times (and ranked second once) and, most of all, created havoc that led to a multitude of turnovers and sacks.
On the backs of its defense App State took home a pair of Sun Belt champoinships and became the first school to ever win bowl games in each of its first three seasons after moving to FBS.
In his final season, the Mountaineers ranked among the top 20 nationally in three-and-outs (No. 11, 4.77 per game), interceptions (12th, 18 total), turnovers forced (16th, 26), sacks (17th, 38) and first downs allowed (No. 20, 222) while allowing just 20.2 points and 342.5 yards per contest (good for 21st and 29th in the nation, respectively).
Woody is preaching what he practiced as a player at Wofford, where he started as a defensive back but found himself enamored in attacking after moving to the linebacker spot. He wants the Yellow Jackets to follow his lead by voicing a preference for what position they want to play and doing so with extra drive.
“I always want to find out from them what it is that they want to do,” he said. “A long time ago, I had a good buddy that was playing with me and he was playing defense. He was doing really well, but after the year, he wanted to transfer because he wanted to be an offensive guy and he was a good one. I don’t think the coaches realized that he wanted to be on the other side of the ball and he left. So I’ve always tried to ask the guys, `Where is it that you want to play?’ and then try to show them the best place that they would fit in the defense and go from there. I want to get feedback from them.
“I want them to let me know what it is that they want to play and then show them the structure of our defense and how they can be successful at certain positions,” he added. “As far as recruiting goes, we’re looking for a certain type of guy. I won’t mind taking an inch or two off a defensive lineman if he can giddyup and go. I don’t mind taking a tenth [of a second] off of a linebacker’s 40 time if he can process quickly. So there are certain positions that need to have different qualities that we hit on. They may not be the same type of player [as the schools] that we’re recruiting against [but] if we are, it’s okay, because this is a heck of a school and I think we can win our battles in recruiting.”
He’s also confident the Jackets can win the battles on the field and certainly is excited to go after the gauntlet that is Georgia Tech’s schedule.
“You want to be challenged as a player. You want to go out there and play the best. Coaching-wise, it’s the same thing,” he said. “You want to sit in that staff room and work with guys to come up with a great game plan that guys can be successful with and then go out there and, when you win, it means something. We’ve got enough competition in the ACC to where if we win, we can get into the [College Football Playoff]. That’s got to be the goal for anybody.”
He can confidently pursue those goals knowing Johnson has his back, but won’t be peering over his shoulder.
“I fully expect him to run his scheme,” Johnson said. “Certainly I’ll be watching and we’ll sit down during the week and I’ll have my suggestions within his scheme, but I’m not going to micromanage. If that were the case, there would be no use to hire somebody and, truthfully, I wouldn’t want anybody that would work for me that would do that. I have full confidence in him.”
Woody will have input in completing the staff, something Johnson said could be done within the next two weeks.
“He’s having a great deal of input on these staff hires,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t ask anybody to come be the cook if they couldn’t buy some of the groceries. So, certainly, that’s where we’re at. My chips are in on Nate.”
Woody is also all-in on Johnson, whose offensive system is one he has always admired and is similar to the one run successfully by his boss at Wofford for 22 years, the recently retired Mike Ayers.
Johnson and Woody started on the same wave length in a meeting at Johnson’s house in December and believe they’ll stay connected.
“When he first called me, I thought he may just be reaching out to see and wasn’t sure if this thing would work out. But the more we talked, I got pretty excited because I did feel a genuine interest from him,” Woody said. “The more we talked, the more we talked about people that we have known over the years and are friends to both of us. It was a comfortable conversation every time I talked to him. Of course, Georgia Tech is a school that I hold in such high regard. I’m just extremely happy that things worked out and Coach chose me.”