Georgia Tech hopes a defensive makeover will help it bounce back from a losing season.
After winning nine games in 2016, the Yellow Jackets dipped to 5-6 last year. Georgia Tech, which had a game at Central Florida cancelled because of Hurricane Irma, suffered its second losing season in the past three years.
The Yellow Jackets ranked 124th out of 127 teams nationally in turnovers forced (10); 108th in sacks (1.5 per game); and 70th in tackles for loss (6.0 per game).
Ted Roof, who had served as defensive coordinator for five seasons, left the school last December to join the North Carolina State staff. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson replaced him with Nate Woody, who had been guiding the defense at Appalachian State.
Woody, whose Mountaineers registered 38 sacks and forced 36 turnovers last year, installed his attack-oriented, 3-4 scheme at Georgia Tech.
Johnson likes Woody’s approach.
“I just want to be more aggressive,” Johnson said last month during ACC media days at a Charlotte, North Carolina, hotel. “You have to free guys up and let them play.
“You’re measured by the results, and in some of the categories — sacks, tackles for loss, negative plays, turnovers caused, all that stuff — we were not very good. I just think it would help us if we can get an extra two or three negative plays a game. Because we’re already playing a lot less [defensive] plays than everybody else [because of Georgia Tech’s run-oriented offense], so if you can find a way to get off the field and get some negative plays, then that’s going to help everybody.”
Linebacker Brant Mitchell expects the new philosophy to pay off.
“A lot of times in what we were running last year — a nickel package — I think we weren’t necessarily as aggressive as we should have been,” said Mitchell, one of five returning starters on defense. “But when you are aggressive and you do play that attack style and you’ve got speed up front, moving a lot, I think it does help to make some negative-yardage plays.”
The Yellow Jackets lost a pair of games by one point last fall. They blew a 28-14 fourth-quarter lead in a 42-41 overtime loss to Tennessee in the opener. They blew a 24-13 third quarter lead in a 25-24 loss at Miami last October.
“We close games out last year, the whole season would be turned around,” said quarterback TaQuon Marshall, one of eight starters back on offense. “Two games changed the whole season last year for us, and those two games we lost by a total of two points.”
Georgia Tech blew a 14-3 second-quarter lead in a 43-20 loss at Duke.
The Yellow Jackets also blew a double-digit lead in a 40-36 loss at Virginia. Down 28-13 in third quarter, UVa grabbed a 33-28 lead with 8:49 to go. Georgia Tech regained the lead at 36-33 before UVa won the game on a Kurt Benkert touchdown pass with 1:22 left.
“We lost four games that we were ahead by two scores,” Johnson said. “That’s not just defense. You’ve got to keep scoring on offense, too. You’ve got to keep the pressure on.
“We weren’t good enough on other side to finish.”
Georgia Tech averaged 307.4 yards rushing with its option-oriented offense. A pair of 1,000-yard rushers return — Marshall (1,146 yards) and 2017 All-ACC second-team running back KirVonte Benson (1,053 yards).
But Marshall completed just 37.1 percent of his 116 passes last year. He threw for 927 yards and 10 touchdowns. The team ranked 99th in passing efficiency.
“What we want to do is be more efficient in our passing game,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to be balanced. I can find you a bunch of teams with losing records that are balanced.
“I don’t know that we throw it more, but if we had a little higher completion percentage, a little more efficiency, than certainly it would help the offense.”
Marshall has been trying to hone his passing skills.
“I know last year [it was] just the small things that I was missing — not really setting my feet to throw the ball, or rushing [the throw],” Marshall said. “So those are all the little things that I’ve been working on this offseason.”
Georgia Tech finished third in the Coastal Division last year with a 4-4 league mark. The Yellow Jackets have been picked to again finish third in the division in the ACC’s preseason media poll.
The Yellow Jackets will visit Virginia Tech on Oct. 25 and will host UVa on Nov. 17.