Nov. 4, 2003
Georgia Tech’s defense features the Atlantic Coast Conference leaders in tackles, interceptions and quarterback sacks in senior linebacker Keyaron Fox, junior free safety James Butler and sophomore defensive end Eric Henderson.
The Yellow Jackets (5-3, 3-2 ACC) enters this week’s ACC game at Duke (Saturday, 1 p.m., Wallace Wade Stadium) with a four-game winning streak following victories over Vanderbilt, NC State, Wake Forest and Maryland.
The triumvirate of Fox, Butler and Henderson has helped defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s unit lead the ACC in rushing defense (94.8 yards allowed per game) and rank third in total defense (312.5 ypg) and scoring defense (16.0 ppg). The Jackets are in the top 22 nationally in all three categories, including 12th in scoring defense and 15th in rushing defense.
The Tech defense is second in the ACC in third-down conversion percentage allowed (30.3 percent) and second in red zone defense. On 25 opponent red zone possessions, the Jackets have allowed 19 scores but just 12 touchdowns.
The leader of Tech’s strong defensive effort this season is Fox, who is averaging 12.6 tackles per game.
Fox played a huge role in Tech’s win over Maryland, leading a standout defensive effort that held the high-powered Terps to three points, 96 yards rushing and 253 total yards. In addition to his 15 tackles, Fox was involved in the play of the game as he sacked Terps quarterback Joel Statham and forced him to fumble. The ball was eventually recovered by Tech’s Jonathan Cox to set up the game’s only touchdown.
Fox was named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week for his play against Maryland. He was also honored for his play in Tech’s win over Auburn, when he had a career-high with 16 tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss.
Fox and his running mate, senior linebacker Daryl Smith, are the keys to what Tech is able to do defensively.
“If you don’t figure out where Smith and Fox are on every play, you’re making a big mistake,” says Gailey. “If you don’t get a hat on them, they’re going to make every tackle. If you try to slip a lineman up or slip a tight end up to get onto those guys too quickly, that’s where our defensive linemen are able to make some plays.
“The other good thing, I think, is that the disguise factor is a big plus for us. Our guys are always moving around, and lining up in different spots. You think that Fox is coming off the edge, and he backs out, but here comes Smith off the other side. Or we show blitz from one side, and here it comes off the other side – those things really help our defensive line be effective. “
Fox and Smith are particularly difficult for offenses to deal with because of their versatility.
“You don’t know how to count them,” says Gailey. “Do you count them as pass defenders or pass rushers? Last year, we were not using Smith as much in that role. This year, we’re using both of them in that role, which is really creating a problem. Which one is coming this time? Do I make sure that I block him with a lineman, or do I let a back have him? If you put a back on either of them, you’re really asking for trouble.”
The production and talents of Fox and Smith have been a benefit to Tech’s young defensive line, led by Henderson, who leads the ACC with eight sacks, among his 15 tackles for loss.
The one thing that we have on the defensive line is speed,” said Gailey of the defensive line, which also features excellent quickness and speed in defensive end Gerris Wilkinson and tackle Travis Parker.
“We’ve got so much more speed than the offensive lines that we’re playing. We’re not as big, but we can get into the creases and stop the run game and create problems in pass protection with that speed.”
Butler, who leads the ACC and ranks ninth in the nation with five interceptions, has shown a penchant for making big plays, particularly in Tech’s victory over Maryland, when he grabbed two interceptions and made 12 tackles against the Terrapins and was named ACC Defensive Back of the Week.
Earlier this season, “JB” sealed Tech’s win over Vanderbilt with an interception on the Commodores’ first play in overtime. Against Wake Forest, he had caused two fumbles, blocked a field goal and grabbed an interception in the Tech victory.
Butler is a tremendous athlete, but he is also a student of the game.
“You have to have X amount of ability, you have to have an understanding of the game, but preparation is one of the things that he does best, in my opinion,” says Gailey. “He understands formations and tendencies and I think he goes into the game with a knowledge of what needs to be done. He does have a natural feel for the game, and that comes with studying.”