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#STINGDAILY: Other Side Of The Ball

Oct. 2, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Having lost back-to-back games while playing well below their own standards in the process, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson and his football team might take one of three approaches to improving.

The Yellow Jackets might do what they’re doing but do it better. They might change what they’re doing. Or, some of both.

This is a hyper simplification, but with a trip to No. 15 Clemson looming, the choice du jour will be No. 3 with a dose of hope added.

Option No. 1 is always in play, actually, even when a team is rolling. Option No. 2 is speculative and specious if over-done; the process of deciding what to scrap isn’t so difficult, usually, yet deciding what to add is delicate beyond simple description. That’s a bit of a guessing game.

So here’s one way Tech will hope to merge Nos. 1 and 2. Johnson, who always knows the defensive game plan but does not always participate in its construction, will be a little more involved on that side of the ball this week.

Given that the Jackets have surrendered 1,119 yards of total offense in the past two games, it seemed a natural question Tuesday morning in his meeting with the media. Will you drop in more frequently on the defensive meetings? Participate more in the process of preparing on that side of the ball?

“Yeah, you do,” he said. “I think that what you have to do is look at it and evaluate, and see what we’re asking guys to do. That’s what I always do. I look at the tape, and I want to see what we’re asking the guys to do and if they can do it.

“The last couple games we haven’t done it very well, but I don’t think we have asked them to do anything out of the ordinary. There have been some communication issues, but even having said that, the bottom-line is we have to tackle better, quit giving up the big plays, take better angles.”

Johnson stated the obvious; the Jackets need to be better at quite a few things, particularly on defense. His comments suggest, however, that he is not saying that defensive coordinator Al Groh has lost his way. He’s saying that he feels it’s time to expand the number of voices in the D room.

It’s a checks-and-balance system. Frankly, every coaching staff benefits when there are people in the room willing to say no. Or to make suggestions. Or ask questions.

Groh will be available to the media today for the first time since last Wednesday. He’ll face questions after this afternoon’s practice. Before that, he will have faced questions from Johnson. That, too, can be a tricky process.

“You walk that line because when you hire somebody to do something, you want to give them the opportunity to do it. I don’t want them to feel like I’m handcuffing them,” Johnson said. “My position has always been: I give people the leeway to do what they need to do and then I’ll evaluate when it comes time to evaluate it.

“Now, does that mean that if I see something that I think is totally screwed up that I’m going to let it happen? No. I’m going to say I don’t want to do that, or we need to do something else . . . I don’t think the man forgot everything he knew in the last two weeks, but ultimately [coaches are] responsible.”

Well, yes, but . . .

Having said that he does not believe defenders are being asked to do too much, Johnson seems to be saying he expects more from players. If you’ve watched the past couple games, that seems reasonable.

It is difficult not to suspect that something has gone missing. It didn’t seem to be absent through the first three games, but many players the past two weeks may have lacked the passion required by this game, especially last Saturday.

Whether the overtime loss to Miami took the starch out of their sails or not, the players have a responsibility to each other, to their coaches, families, fans and even themselves to pump up the volume.

Sure, that’s silly. But it’s the truth.

“It’s not just the seniors. It’s the red-shirts and the . . . guys on the scout team,” Johnson said. “There’s got to be some energy on the sideline. Just because you’re not playing doesn’t mean you’re standing there like a corpse.”

There is only so much coaches can say in this regard. These are young men.

There is no single switch to flip to make this happen. This is an organic matter. Leadership, especially of the peer-to-peer variety among players, cannot be forced. It grows. The Jackets could use more of it among their rank and file.

A coach and his staff can set out to recruit a certain number of players with qualities that suggest they’ll grow into leadership roles. A head coach can make some moves to help facilitate the process – like naming captains or having them voted upon by teammates – but there is no guarantee.

Here, you hope.

“You need some leadership, but the first thing you need is everyone has to be accountable for themselves,” Johnson said. “From coaches to players, you’ve got to do your job and people have got to be able to depend on you doing what you’re supposed to be doing.

“There’s a lot of intangibles on teams that people on the outside don’t understand. There are inner workings. There are guys who have the confidence and guys who have the ability to talk to the team, and there are other guys nobody’s paying any attention to.

“You don’t just decide on Tuesday, ‘I’m going to be a leader.’ It happens over a period of time when they see how hard you work, how hard you’re practicing, what you’re doing . . . it pulls everybody together.

“But if you’re not doing your part, it’s pretty hard to talk to people about doing their part. I think the best leaders aren’t always the vocal guys; they’re the guys who you know when you go out there they’re going to give you what they’ve got. You can count on them. They can expect and demand that you give what you’ve got because of what they’re doing.”

Comments to Twitter @ mwinkeljohn


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