As Barrel of Rum's Chris Hall writes, Tech's new defense has nowhere to go but up.
To say that Tech struggled defensively last year would be a slight understatement. Yes, we won an ACC Championship and played in a BCS bowl. No, we didn’t stop anyone on our way to Miami, including an average Georgia team that simply crammed the ball down our throats for sixty minutes.
So gone are defensive coordinator Dave Wommack and his 3-3-5 alignment featuring the hybrid linebacker/safety position known as "wolf." To call that experiment a failure would be, well, generous. Into the defensive coordinator job steps former UVA head coach and poet laureate Al Groh. While you can debate Groh’s acumen as a head coach, there’s little debate on his ability as a defensive signal caller; he’s proven to be one of the best. Groh brings with him the 3-4, a defense gaining popularity in the collegiate ranks but certainly more prevalent in the NFL. So what can we expect from Tech on defense this year?
The base set is a 3-4 stack cover 2. But Groh will play many coverages and scheme variations. We’ll see some cover 3 and quarters, and maybe even some cover 1 robber if we master the scheme. Groh will be aggressive and bring pressure with multiple blitz packages designed to disguise where the pressure is coming from and confuse the offense. Theoretically the 3-4 is a great defense, particularly in this day and age of the spread offense, as it allows for tremendous variation and flexibility. But that’s theory; how will it play out?
We may not have guys ideally suited to play the 3-4, but we have enough talent to be an improved defense from last year -- which may be all we need to snag another ACC crown. Yes, it hurts losing two terrific players in Derrick Morgan and Morgan Burnett. But the change to the 3-4 and a continuity of scheme this year should help make up for their loss. Let’s break down the units.
Tech’s defensive line remains a bit undersized, but we return four players who played significant minutes last year in Logan Walls, Ben Anderson (back from an ACL injury), Izaan Cross, and Jason Peters. If spring practice is any indication, look for Peters to excel in Groh’s scheme as he’s moved outside to his more natural defensive end position. Don’t be surprised to see redshirt freshman Emmanual "Too Tall" Dieke play significant minutes at defensive end, spelling the starters. The concern up front for Tech is size -– we’re not very big, and last year we were consistently pushed around at the point of attack. This will be a big key this year; we must play physical and hold our own against bigger, physical running teams. We’ll need solid play up front, particularly at nose tackle, if we don’t want teams duplicating the Georgia game plan from last year.
At linebacker Tech has talent, but is razor thin on depth. Senior captain Brad Jefferson returns for his final year on the Flats and looks to be an ideal fit at Mike linebacker with his size and rugged style of play. Next to Jefferson redshirt junior Kyle Jackson returns from a foot injury that kept him out all of last season. One name Tech fans should be aware of is redshirt freshman Brandon Watts, who excelled in the spring and, "has as much potential as any player since we’ve been here," according to Coach Johnson. On the outside, senior A.T. Barnes plays the Sam (strongside) position while fellow senior Anthony Egbuniwe will start at Will, a hybrid linebacker/pass rush specialist. This should be a welcome change for Egbuniwe as he was undersized at defensive end last year and couldn’t use his greatest asset -- his speed -- effectively. While there’s talent at linebacker, we’re perilously thin due to the transition to the 3-4. If we can stay healthy, we’ll be okay but injuries could prove difficult for us to overcome.
The strength of this year’s defense is our secondary, where we return a load of experience and welcome a precocious young talent to the fray. At cornerback, the underrated Mario Butler holds down one side while senior Dominique Reese has moved from safety, where he played last season, to his more natural corner position. Behind the steady Butler is true freshman Louis Young, while sophomore Rod Sweeting backs up Reese. At safety, expect a terrific three-man rotation of senior Mario Edwards, a healthy Cooper Taylor, and freshman phenom Isaiah Johnson. Taylor, who missed most of last year with a heart condition, returns in good health and will be a great presence in the secondary.
Perhaps the biggest story of the spring and fall has been the play of Johnson, a true freshman from Sandy Creek High here in metro Atlanta (we had another player named Johnson you might remember from that school…). Johnson enrolled early this spring and quickly made his presence felt on the field with his physical play and ball-hawking style. By the end of spring camp Johnson was seeing first-team reps, and this has continued into the Fall. Wearing Morgan Burnett’s #1, expect to see a lot of Johnson in this his first season at Tech.
As a whole, we’ll be a better defense than last year; that’s a given. It would be hard to be worse than a team that forced one punt or fewer in five games last year. While the scheme may be new, there’s a great teacher and a sense of continuity this year, something we lacked for much of last season.
But a word of caution to Tech fans: Al Groh's 3-4 is not a magic bullet. Our defense will be a work in progress throughout the season. They are learning as they go, and the personnel, while good, isn’t tailor-made to the scheme. So don’t expect a top 10 defense nationally. Expect a hard-working group who will be better than last year and improve as the year goes on.
How much they improve will determine how successful we are this year, but there’s no reason we won’t be solidly in the mix for another ACC title. Hell, we won the thing with no defense last year. Any improvement will be welcome.