Oct. 3, 2002
Something unfamiliar is unfolding on The Flats this fall. Through the first part of the season, it has been the defense that has carried the Jackets to a 4-1 record.
During the Jackets’ current run of success over the past half-decade, the defense has absorbed plenty of criticism. However, for the first time in six seasons, the Jackets entered the season without the luxury of a fine-tuned offense that could minimize any shortcomings on the other side of the ball.
“We knew coming into the year that there would be some more pressure on us,” said linebacker Recardo Wimbush. “With a new quarterback and running back, there were going to be some adjustments, so it was on us to pick up the slack. I think we’ve met that challenge so far.”
There’s little doubt about that. The Tech defense has emerged as one of the top units in the ACC, as well as the country, by allowing only 14.6 points per game. That ranks tops in the conference and 15th in the nation.
The other number that jumps off the stat sheet is third-down defense. Opponents are converting only 26 percent of their opportunities, a sharp improvement from previous seasons.
So what the difference? It can be summed up by the unit’s new buzz word-aggressive.
First-year defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has instilled a no holds-barred mentality in the defensive schemes, utilizing more blitz packages.
“It all starts with Coach Tenuta,” explained defensive line coach Glenn Spencer. “He has a very aggressive personality, and he’s an aggressive coach. I think that filters down to the players.
“I’ve never heard him say, ‘Let’s just sit back,’ or ‘Let’s play it safe.’ We’re teeing off and going after people.”
“They really push the word “aggressive” in everything we do,” added defensive end Tony Hargrove, who leads the defensive line with 17 tackles and two sacks. “You really can’t be lackadaisical. If you’re not aggressive, you’re not going to get in the game.”
Another factor is the veteran presence. Nine starters are upperclassmen, and most of those on the two-deep have seen significant action this season.
“I think the main advantage we have is experience,” said senior safety Jeremy Muyres. “We’ve played together for so long that we know what everyone is doing out there. When you have that experience, you play well together.”
“Without a doubt, they are the heart of the defense,” said Spencer, a Tech graduate who was a member of the Rambling Wreck’s famed “Black Watch” defense in the mid 1980s. “What they do production-wise makes everybody better. Those guys with their ability and leadership make the whole unit better.”
“We have speed,” Wimbush said. “We may not have a lot of size, but the speed overlaps everything.”
The secondary, anchored by Muyres, is enjoying one its best seasons. The defensive backs have been more active in the passing lanes and have allowed fewer big plays, the Jackets’ Achilles heel in past seasons.
Despite some hardship, the defensive line has exceeded expectations and is probably the most pleasant surprise of the season. The improved interior line play by tackles Alfred Malone and Travis Parker has given the ends and linebackers more opportunities to make plays in the offensive backfield.
“When those guys are taking up two blocks, that means that the ends have a single block,” explained Hargrove. “We’re licking our chops, because that’s when we can make big plays.”
However, the loss of all-America Greg Gathers has left a major void both on and off the field, but it has also resulted in a tight-knit group. Without their best player, the unit responded with two stellar performances.
“We really came together,” Hargrove said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re playing so well. Greg is a guy that is very focused, and he’s made sure we know what we need to accomplish out on the field.”
Against BYU, the offense got off to a slow start, but the defense was able to hold the potent Cougar offense in check in the first half.
“It feels wonderful to be able to do what we did the last two weeks,” said Wimbush. “I’ve been here four years, and we’ve had situations like that a lot, and we didn’t always get the job done.”
Last Saturday against North Carolina, the defense shut out the Tar Heels in the second half. Muyres combined with defensive back Reuben Houston and Jonathan Cox to force and recover a fumble that shifted the momentum in the Jackets’ favor.
“After some of the things that have happened this season, it would’ve been easy to lie down and let teams run over us, but we’re not that type of team,” said Wimbush. “We have a lot of pride.”