ATLANTA — It’s always a good bet that Georgia Tech will put up outlandish rushing statistics, but if the Yellow Jackets are going to return to relevance, their defense must stop giving up similarly absurd numbers beginning Saturday against Elon.
The Phoenix offer the first chance for new defensive coordinator Ted Roof – a linebacker in Georgia Tech’s “Black Watch” defense in the mid-1980s – to prove that the Yellow Jackets can turn back the clock.
Georgia Tech has finished in the top four in the nation in rushing in each of head coach Paul Johnson’s five seasons at the school, but the defense has slipped precipitously since the Yellow Jackets went 9-4 and 11-3 in 2008 and ’09. They are 21-19 since.
Johnson fired defensive coordinator Al Groh at midseason last year after the Yellow Jackets lost consecutive games to Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson while allowing averages of 573 yards and 46 points.
Elon, an FCS program coming off a 3-9 season, does not qualify as a stiff test, but Groh’s defensive schemes did. The Yellow Jackets say Roof has made their jobs easier.
“It’s simpler: just line up and play ball,” said senior defensive end Euclid Cummings. “When you think, that slows you down as a defensive player.”
Georgia Tech is still going to run the ball plenty, even with a new starting quarterback. Sophomore Vad Lee passed for 596 yards last season, and accounted for 544 yards on the ground as the Yellow Jackets averaged 311.2 rushing yards, No. 4 in the nation.
Defense, however, is where the Yellow Jackets must improve. Senior end Jeremiah Attaochu and cornerbacks Louis Young and Jemea Thomas are among eight returning starters.
“It’s a whole lot simpler,” outside linebacker Brandon Watts said of the new system. “I think we’re going to be a whole lot better.”
Roof, who played at Tech from 1982-’85 and was defensive coordinator from ’99-’01, doesn’t want to hear it. He wants to see it. “I’m glad they feel that, and they’ll have a chance to prove that,” he said. “It’ll mean a whole lot more if they’re saying it after Saturday.”
The Phoenix will be led defensively by junior middle linebacker Jonathan Spain (6-feet-2, 242 pounds). He had 120 tackles last season. Junior defensive tackle Dustin Ruff (5-10, 302) is a space eater.