ATLANTA – Ted Roof’s defense became a taboo topic late in Georgia Tech training camp, as head coach Paul Johnson grew tired of talking about the group’s prospects.
“It’s about time to quit talking and start playing,” Johnson said.
The defense’s play spoke volumes in the opener, a shutout of overmatched FBS team Elon. The Yellow Jackets proved opportunistic, forcing four turnovers, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns. They harassed the Phoenix quarterbacks and running backs. And they made stands when they needed to.
But as the Yellow Jackets head into ACC play with a Sept. 14 game against Duke, the defense still has something to prove to the coach.
“We had a hard time getting them off the field,” Johnson said following the Elon game. “The good thing was that when they got down there, we didn’t let them score. That’s still not what we achieve for.”
Such is the attitude about Georgia Tech’s defense. Roof is Johnson’s fourth defensive coordinator in six seasons, and Johnson has grown weary of the false bravado and hollow praise for and from his defense that seems to precede every season.
Johnson is the epitome of the “show me, don’t tell me” coach, and he’s tired of witnessing a horror show.
The coach lamented a handful of Elon long drives. Holding the Phoenix to 6-of-16 on third down wasn’t good enough. And one sack on 35 passing plays, even against a snap-it-and-dump-it scheme, won’t cut it either.
Johnson is setting high standards for the defense is a good sign, however. Roof is a departure from the two full-time coordinators who preceded him, Al Groh and Dave Wommack. Roof coaches at Tech the way he once played – relentlessly.
During his playing days, Roof determined who earned the black helmet stripe signifying membership in the “Black Watch” defense of the 1980s. Then-coach Bill Curry saw Roof as a tremendous leader who embodied everything about defensive football.
Roof is taking on a somewhat similar aura as the defensive coordinator. The Roof effect is in effect.
“Everything he does, we try to imitate it,” linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days said. “He shows a lot of enthusiasm. He’s a rough guy, but he’s cool.”
The coolest part of Roof’s scheme, at least to this point, is its aggressive nature. Granted, Georgia Tech’s scout team would have been competitive with Elon, a slumping program on one of college football’s lower rungs.
But the stunts and movement by Georgia Tech’s linebackers and secondary will have most ACC quarterbacks guessing at times. And if that continues to translate to turnovers, the Yellow Jackets will be much improved defensively.
They forced just 25 turnovers in 14 games last season and returned just one forced turnover for a touchdown. Against Elon, they had four takeaways and scored twice on interception returns.
Georgia Tech’s defensive line impressed as well, controlling the line of scrimmage and taking “up a lot of blocks,” according to linebacker Brandon Watts. Elon averaged just 2.6 yards per carry.
But again, the competition was not up to ACC standards.
Also not up to snuff was the play of self-described “psychopath” Jeremiah Attaochu, who made his debut at defensive end. The Yellow Jackets leading pass rusher last year at linebacker finished with just one tackle.
But then Roof doesn’t want to give future opponents too much to study on film. Attaochu’s talent makes him the player most will have to key on, and with three ACC Coastal Division games in 12 days coming up – Duke on Sept. 14, North Carolina a week later and Virginia Tech in a Thursday night game – Roof almost certainly showed just a small slice of the playbook against lowly Elon.
Another player missing in action against Elon was star safety Isaiah Johnson, although Johnson really was absent. Johnson underwent ACL surgery in the offseason, and the coaches opted to hold him out with hopes he’ll be ready for the Duke-North Carolina-Virginia Tech stretch.
The defense dominated most of the conversation surrounding the season-opener, but two other players drew plenty of attention.
Lee, Butker Impress In Opener
Quarterback Vad Lee shined in his starting debut and showed why teammates were raving about him – one mentioned him and Jesus Christ in the same sentence – at ACC media days in July. Georgia Tech scored touchdowns on all seven Lee possessions. He completed seven of 11 passes, spreading the ball around to five different receivers, for 189 yards against Elon.
Lee also rushed six times for 49 yards, or 8.2 yards per carry, and showed a firm grasp of the option read.
Lee downplayed the success afterward. He understands he will be measured in the 11 games ahead, particularly the next three.
“Obviously, we feel unstoppable right now,” Lee said. “We can’t get complacent and think we are unstoppable, because I’m pretty sure teams are out to get us this year.”
The other Jacket that has fans buzzing is freshman kicker Harrison Butker. His Twitter handle is @buttkicker87, and he kicked the behind out of the football in the opener, living up to what passes for hype for a kicker.
Butker forced seven touchbacks on nine kickoffs and placed most of his kicks into a corner, which helps the kick coverage team should the opponent attempt a return.
Georgia Tech kickers had forced just 30 touchbacks in the previous two seasons combined and ranked 98th in the country in touchback percentage in 2012. Opponents regularly started drives on or around the 40-yard line after Tech kickoffs in recent years.
One of the kickers from the previous two seasons, Justin Moore, was dismissed from the team in May. The other, David Scully, lost the starting job to Butker during camp.
The Yellow Jackets’ offensive efficiency prevented fans from gauging Butker’s field goal prowess. His high school numbers were impressive – he owns the longest field goal at Atlanta’s Westminster School (53 yards) and made 16 of 17 field goals as a junior. His first college test will come in conference play.