By Michael Cunningham
From Al Groh’s perspective, something happens once he has had three years to install his defense.
It’s hard for the Georgia Tech defensive coordinator to say exactly why that is, but he knows it when he sees it.
“I don’t know if there is a specific answer that I have,” Groh said. “It just seems [based on] years of observation, that’s plenty of time for things to take with a player. If it really hasn’t taken by then, there is probably a reason why it might not for a long time.”
After the Tech defense’s improvement in 2011-12 was overshadowed by a late-season slide, the unit is looking to make big strides in Groh’s third season. That’s the same trajectory that Groh’s teams followed during his first three seasons as coach at Virginia.
Cavaliers opponents rolled to 430.6 yards per game in 2001, 424.6 in 2002, but just 384.7 in ’03. Virginia allowed 27.6 points per game in 2001, 24.9 in ’02 and then 20.4 in ’03.
What was the difference?
“Better players,” Groh said flatly.
Does Groh have better players with Tech now than when he took over the defense in 2010?
“I think we have, let’s say, a higher level of versatility in what they enable us to do,” he said. “What we do is based largely on the skills of this particular group. I think we have a more versatile set of skills.”
The standouts on the 2003 Virginia defense included a talented, experienced group of linebackers: Ahmad Brooks (now with the 49ers), Darryl Blackstock (Raiders) and All-ACC performer Kai Parham. They helped limit Cavaliers opponents to 161.7 rushing yards per game and 15 touchdowns in 2003 after they allowed more than 200 yards per game and at least 22 touchdowns the previous two seasons.
Similar to Groh’s first two teams at Virginia, Tech’s run defense was a weakness last season. And also as with Groh’s Cavaliers, linebacker may be a position of strength and experience for the Yellow Jackets, who return three players who started games there in 2011.
Tops among them is junior Jeremiah Attaochu, who led Tech with 11.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in 2011. Though Attaochu played significant time as a freshman, Groh said there were times last season when he would watch Attaochu play and wonder what he was doing.
The Jackets haven’t practiced much yet, but Attaochu said he’s already seen a difference with the defense.
“A lot less mental errors from everybody,” he said. “Better communication. You can look guys in the eye and know the call. You don’t really have to over-communicate. Everyone is on the same page.”
The rest of Tech’s projected starting lineup also is filled with juniors and seniors. The secondary appears to be particularly strong with Louis Young and Rod Sweeting returning to start at cornerback and Isaiah Johnson at one of the safety positions.
Attaochu said Groh hasn’t talked to his players about the expected improvement in the third year. But Attaochu said the spring and the start of preseason practice have him convinced the same will hold true for the Jackets.
“He doesn’t even have to say it,” Attaochu said. “It’s just being more comfortable in practice. The dividends are ultimately going to show in the game. He tries to put us in good position, and if you are not there, you are bound to fail.
“With age comes wisdom. You need a lot of wisdom to play in this defense.”
There’s not an abundance of experience on the depth chart behind the defensive starters. Thomas, a junior safety, recalls how difficult it was for him when he started learning the defense and said “it will always be a challenge for the younger players because they are trying to figure out what’s going on.”
Groh also warns that not all experience is the same.
“As outsiders see the word ‘experience,’ it means how many years has he been playing,” Groh said. “Some players get four years’ experience. Some players get one year’s experience four times. It never adds up. It’s the first year all over again.”
Still, Groh said “the paint should dry” for his players in the third year. Johnson said they believe it will.
“There really is no doubt,” he said. “I feel it. This is the season the defense will step up and pretty much show the world. I see good things.”