Aug. 13, 2001
ATLANTA — While Georgia Tech’s offensive prowess has gained plenty of attention as the Yellow Jackets averaged nearly 37 points a game the last three seasons, the Rambling Wreck defense looks to continue the remarkable improvement it began to show last season.
“When everybody was pointing fingers, I said that we needed to get better players on defense, and I made sure that we did that the last couple of years,” said Georgia Tech head coach George O’Leary, the former defensive coordinator who added, “When you get better players, you seem to be a better coach for some reason.”
Georgia Tech, which opens the season Aug. 26 against Syracuse in the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J., is ranked 10th in the Associated Press preseason poll and 13th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll.
Tech’s No. 10 in the AP poll is its highest preseason ranking since 1991, when the Jackets were rated eighth by the media and sixth in the coaches’ poll following their 1990 national title. The Jackets were 11th in both preseason polls prior to the 1999 season.
Under coordinator Ted Roof, the Tech defense yielded only 19 points per game last fall, which ranked 20th nationally and was the lowest figure for the Jackets since 1991. The Rambling Wreck also ranked 13th in the nation in rushing defense at 94.5 points per game, holding six opponents under 100 yards.
Tech intercepted 15 passes and recovered 15 fumbles, ranking second in the nation in turnover margin (+1.64 per game) while setting up the offense for 90 points.
This year’s defense has experience with nine starters returning but is still youthful with only three seniors in the entire two-deep in end Nick Rogers (East Point, Ga.), tackle Merrix Watson (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.) and strong safety Chris Young (Senoia, Ga.). The starting 11 is expected to consist of three seniors, six juniors and two sophomores.
The other distinguishing feature of the defense is speed.
“When you get guys who can run, I think you’re going to play pretty good defense,” said O’Leary.
Tech’s starting trio of linebackers return in tact with junior Recardo Wimbush (Blakely, Ga.) and Ather Brown (Macon, Ga.) and sophomore Daryl Smith (Albany, Ga.). Smith was the team’s leading tackler last fall with 96 hits, while Wimbush led in 1999 (91) and was second a year ago (94).
“They’re still young with a lot of growing to do yet, but I think they have the ability to be a really good group by the time they graduate,” said O’Leary. “There’s not one senior out there, it’s all sophomores and juniors.
“They’ve got a lot of growing up to do in coverage. I think they’re playing the run better, but to be a complete linebacker, you have to do both, so we still have a lot of work to get done.
“We have a long way to go on both sides of the ball, but I like the way we’re working,” continued O’Leary. “They’re taking coaching and learning from it.”