Death, taxes, and Paul Johnson hiring a new defensive coordinator because his offense is perfect and blameless in his program’s mounting futility. There are multiple reasons for Georgia Tech’s decline this decade, but I’d argue the revolving door at defensive coordinator is a result of, not so much a cause for the decline.
Johnson came to Tech touting his offense’s ability to do more with less; his offense at Tech could be astronomical with the talent bump — relative to his Navy and Georgia Southern teams — and the offense would thus protect the defense with ball control. Simple in theory; difficult when your school has branding issues and is an afterthought in its own city. It’s no coincidence Tech’s talent has fallen off farther into Johnson’s tenure, and naturally it affected the defensive side of the ball more than the offense, where Johnson’s scheme is indeed a neutralizer.
However, I do feel Tech will be better served without Ted Roof running their defense any longer, and in my research I came to appreciate the Nate Woody hire. The scheme is different, operating from the 3-4, but it will be an “attacking” 3-4 focused on stressing opposing offensive lines with much smaller defensive linemen than you normally find in a 3-4, but not necessarily quick enough to play the 1-gap scheme Woody prefers. Running a 1-gap 3-4 from even technique isn’t unheard of (in fact it’s common in blended fronts) and in theory — much like the option offense with access to better talent — it can be effective.
Like most 3-4 teams, Tech aligns in even technique (2-tech DEs and a 0-tech nose) across the front along with a Jack linebacker off the weak-side edge, who is naturally Tech’s best pass rusher in Victor Alexander. Tech prefers to send Alexander off the edge whenever possible, and will rotate him to the weak side on every snap (unlike Clemson’s defensive ends, where the WDE is always kept across the left tackle and the SDE across from the right no matter the formation strength or side of the field). Alexander is by far Tech’s most physically intimidating specimen, and is flexible enough to drop into coverage and force a zone read mesh conundrum.
The rest of the front is experienced (all seniors) but no one jumps off the screen with quickness or explosive power to make consistent plays in the backfield, barring protection busts or missed assignments. Clemson’s offensive line couldn’t ask for a much easier transition into conference play, though we’ve seen even unheralded nose guards give Clemson centers trouble for years. If Clemson struggles on the ground Saturday, the first place I’ll look will be at nose to see if Kyle Cerge-Henderson is giving Justin Falcinelli the same treatment Daylon Mack gave him in College Station. If Faclinelli can handle the nose, the rest of the offensive line should hold up against this front, forcing Woody to send pressure he’d rather not, given his personnel, which leads me to his back 7.
Tech’s secondary plays just like most other hybrid nickel units, with senior Jalen Johnson filling the flex “Stinger” role of nickel/Sam who is asked to excel in space, whether it be in coverage, screen and run support, or pass rushing. Woody calls mostly cover 3 and cover 4 zones in an effort to keep 7 in the box, with most blitzes coming in front of various cover 3 shells. He’ll flip his shell on jet motion (meaning Clemson would be wise to toy with the same Amari Rodgers movements we saw last week) and it can catch quarterbacks off guard.
The secondary at large relies on freshmen and sophomores (most of which are actually Johnson’s better recruits) but there are growing pains to be found in the back end, where even Clemson’s lamented screen game may hopefully find a few rays of light.
The only other player of consequence is found in middle linebacker Brant Mitchell; he who has seemingly been at Tech for what feels like a decade and is arguably the most important piece in the Tech defense. He’s the appropriate cerebral metaphor for a defense which has rectified its schematic and philosophical shortcomings from the Roof era, even though the talent limitations will present plenty of challenges and inhibit Woody’s true philosophical preferences.
But no matter how drastic the change in philosophy from Roof’s passivity to Woody’s aggression, there’s no immediate fix. Woody, already seemingly aware of his new boss’ feelings on recruiting at Tech, said this for his personnel per the AJC’s Ken Sugiura:
Woody has honed his own version of the 3-4, first during a 13-year run as defensive coordinator at Wofford (his alma mater) and then the past five years at Appalachian State. While he was careful to point out that he won’t be shy about going after top recruits, Woody has developed a system that can work with less recruited talent, as well as an eye for recognizing his own fits.
“As far as recruiting goes, we’re looking for a certain type of guy, and I don’t know that most of these other defenses are looking for the same guy all the time,” he said. “I don’t mind taking an inch or two off a defensive lineman if he can giddy up and go. I don’t mind taking a tenth off a linebacker’s 40 time if he can process quickly.
Tech has a handful of these very players in Alexander (giddy up and go) and Mitchell (linebacker who can process quickly) but it’s an uphill battle in year one for Woody, who very well may never receive the chance to build a Tech defense in his image, whether because Johnson pulls the plug on another coordinator or has his pulled himself after another year of the same old. Such is life when your top rivals are Clemson and UGA.
I hate that this refrain will become a weekly broken record this season, but the parity that existed in the ACC in the Tommy Bowden years no longer exists (look around college football as a whole and you’ll see a decline in parity; a clear gap between the top 5 programs or so and all the rest). Clemson will enjoy a near insurmountable talent edge in the remainder of its games, save Florida State, and opponent schematics will matter less on each of the upcoming Saturday’s than Clemson’s own execution.
Saturday should be a chance for Clemson to finally start to show its true capabilities, with its two cupcakes and patented “desperately cling to a vanishing lead in an early season non-conference clash” behind it. Clemson will begin to take the clamps off its offense in conference play, Travis Etienne will again be freed, the quarterback rotation will continue to unfold, and Brent Venables will squat all over the option once again.