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Clemson vs the New-Look Georgia Tech Defense

Geoff Collins has the correct plan to maximize his personnel but it’ll be a long game.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia Tech is always one of my favorite games on the schedule. Perhaps because they were the first thorn in Dabo’s side before he was even the full time head coach, but Tech feels Clemson’s truest and most classic ACC rival to me — we enjoy an older rivalry with Tech than with the ACC’s only other football power FSU, yet closer proximity and often far greater stakes and lore with Tech than any fellow ACC charter members — and I for one am thrilled this contest is back in the national spotlight even if it’s just for our own conference propaganda network launch.

Georgia Tech’s offense is the unit which draws equal parts curiosity and mirth from observers, but let’s not forget this is a complete and total culture overhaul at Georgia Tech no matter the scheme changes. The defensive scheme Tech will enjoy in the coming years may not bear fruit in the first year or two — certainly not in game one against the #1 ranked defending champs — but is better suited to its personnel this season. Tech knew at least half a decade ago things would get worse before they could get any better once they eventually did move on from Paul Johnson; laden with triple option personnel, there was no option but to rip the band-aid off eventually. The next year or two will be quite the rip.

Geoff Collins seems a dynamite hire if for no other reasons but revitalizing the Tech program through competent branding and actual human enthusiasm; only two on a long list of reasons why Tech has fallen so mightily behind its peers, but two of the easiest fixes with the right hire and thus top priorities in year zero. Collins caught up with branding and recruiting trends more so than he innovated, but catching up is innovating in a sense when you tap into the pulse of Atlanta. Collins is a younger, energetic, and promising coach who I believe will rebuild Tech into an annual contender in the Coastal division, but in the present must lean on his defensive acumen to make up for the offensive overhaul you’re bound to notice Thursday night.

Collins is a defensive coach who will employ a true nickel formation to counter the 11 personnel which dominates every level of football now. Tech will return to a 40 front after a year in Nate Woody’s 3-4, but new coordinator Andrew Thacker (who came with Collins from Temple) aims to use plenty of press man coverage in place of safer and “bend but don’t break” zones. Man coverage runs only as far as your cornerbacks carry it, and it exemplifies Collins’/Thacker’s insistence their formations will be personnel-driven, not scheme-driven, since the defensive backfield is a true strength for Tech this season.

You may expect going from a 4-3, to a 3-4, and back to a 4-2-5 in successive seasons would lead to plenty of crossover and hybrid personnel, but with Tech’s general talent dearth, also plenty of mismatches with inadequate personnel fits. You would be correct; Tech has eclectic personnel with which Collins and Thacker can experiment, if not actual fits in their preferred schemes. But I think any philosophical non-compatibility in the front transition is overblown; 3-4 DEs become 4-3 DTs, 3-4 edge defenders become 4-3 WDEs, etc. The real difference in the Tech defense this year is found in coverage philosophy.

With so many blended fronts, in many cases today there is next to no difference in 30 fronts and 40 fronts; the real differences on the line are found in gap philosophy. Every team who runs a 4-3 base pretty much runs a 4-2-5 hybrid nowadays; only rosters with freakish Sams like Clemson’s still bother labeling the Sam linebacker as such. Tech has all but scrapped the Sam position and will throw another Will or Mike in when situations call for more than two linebackers, and the base defense employs a true corner/safety hybrid at Sam (versus the linebacker/safety hybrid found in Isaiah Simmons, for example).

I want to start with how this will influence gap responsibility against the run, since we saw it here when Clemson started using Mackensie Alexander at nickel late in 2015: in press man calls, the nickel corner is truly a corner, and the boundary safety (free safety in Clemson terminology but a strong safety by nature of this assignment) will be the 7th man in the box instead of the nickel/Sam.

A true nickel defense. A 4-3 would keep the Sam in the box and bring the SS down against the slot in most calls.

Keep in mind, bringing a safety down is the only competent way a true nickel defense can put 7 in the box to deter the run. Intuitively you know this means Tech will run with a single high safety most of the game, betting on their cornerbacks to survive isolated out wide or else they risk never stopping the run.

Speaking of the run, Tech will send an interior run blitz or two, but their favorite blitz will be found off the edge with a nickel fire, which Thacker can call both from a more aggressive man cover 1 (most commonly) or a safer cover 3 fire zone:

NB fire in front of man cover 1 robber

A nickel fire is quite often unblocked but at the very least a lot of speed off the edge, and serves to set the edge against the run in addition to being especially effective against play action run directly into it. This is about all Tech would show in the spring game — both by nature of spring games and because Collins’ own personnel was still largely experimental in April — and I’m very interested to see what other looks and coverages Tech may show with an entire offseason behind it.

While many have scoffed this week that Tech can’t even post a depth chart — it’s why I’ve not highlighted any personnel, which is a first in this column — there is actually a good bit of talent in the defensive backfield. No longer will Tech waste Johnson’s best recruits predominantly in conservative zones. Maximizing this personnel with more press man is the quickest and most obvious change Collins has made on the defensive side of the ball; it should limit Clemson’s efficiency on offense relative to the ease with which Clemson has moved the ball on Tech in recent years.

The downside is, yeah, single coverage against Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Then Frank Ladson and Joe Ngata when the headliners need a breather. With nickel personnel, Tech will need a safety in the box to defend the run, and there will be 1-on-1s outside for Clemson’s endless 5-star receivers. So what Tech may gain in increased defensive efficiency will be lost in the amount of explosive plays Clemson should find downfield.

Yet this is the poison Tech will choose, in contrast to playing conservatively to complement its former ball control offense. The more aggressive coverages in the back will of course afford Collins and Thacker the ability to blitz if the corners hold their own. It’s about the highest risk, highest reward approach Tech could choose, and it underlines the wholesale culture change we’ve already begun to see before any real strides in results in the new-look Tech.

Tech will play aggressively and disruptively, but that first tug at the band-aid is the most painful part of the rip.

Clemson 51, Tech 7