Georgia Tech interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly is like his predecessor in at least one regard. Similar to former coordinator Al Groh, Kelly doesn’t mind using baseball analogies.
“It’s like a hitter in baseball,” he said, talking about safety Isaiah Johnson. “Sometimes you get your pitch. When you get your pitch, you’ve got to make it count.”
Kelly refrained from assigning Johnson a spot in a batting order or guessing what his on-base percentage might be, but let’s just say that Johnson has raised his slugging percentage in the past two weeks. With a forced fumble against Boston College followed by an interception return for a touchdown against BYU a week ago, Johnson ranks among the defense’s more improved players since Kelly succeeded Groh on Oct. 8.
“I think he’s kind of settled down a little bit,” Kelly said. “When Isaiah puts his eyes in the right position and he’s comfortable, he can make some things happen.”
Johnson said he misses Groh and has good memories of the only defensive coordinator he had had until Groh was fired. However, Johnson’s play has taken a turn with Kelly. The simplification of the scheme has impacted his performance.
“I was thinking too much,” he said. “Just a lot going on as far as the defense and things weren’t going right. They’re still kind of not going right, but you just can’t sweat it. You’ve got to let things happen.”
For Johnson, a junior and second-year starter, letting things happen refers to Kelly’s “wait for your pitch” exhortation. Johnson’s mindset has been to hurry.
“So he’s telling me to slow it down,” he said, then paraphrased Kelly’s instructions. “Look, it’s not your responsibility to be on the front line, trying to stop them. He’s just saying, ‘You’re a safety. You’re the last line of defense. Just make sure nothing gets behind you.’”
Through the first six games of the season, Johnson and the secondary repeatedly misplayed coverages and either missed tackles or were outrun when they took poor angles to the ball carrier.
With less thinking and a renewed commitment to just playing his assignment, Johnson has responded with the two impact plays and better tackling. It was his first interception since the first half of the 2011 season and his first forced fumble since the first game of his 2010 freshman season. On the fumble, Johnson delivered a punishing hit to Boston College running back Andre Williams on the opening play of the second half, causing a turnover that Tech turned into a field goal.
On the interception, he baited BYU quarterback Riley Nelson into throwing to tight end Kaneakua Friel, then picked him off and returned the ball 22 yards for the score. It was Tech’s first defensive touchdown of the season.
“I know I haven’t been doing what I’m capable of doing, so this second part of the season has been like a whole new season, a different mindset,” he said. “Just run the play. Be free and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
Across the defense, mental errors are down considerably. Tackling was much better against Boston College but worse against BYU. Often defending short fields — the Cougars needed a total of 23 yards to score two of their touchdowns — Tech gave up 40 points for the fourth time in five games.
Kelly thought part of the reason for the missed tackles against BYU was that players were so anxious to get to the ball that they overran the play.
“The one thing I’ll say, I don’t think it’s a not-want-to factor,” he said, “but we have to learn how to be under control.”
It is a lesson that Johnson appears to be grasping. Maryland, Tech’s opponent Saturday, could enable him to keep his turnover streak going. Because they’ve lost their first four quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, the Terrapins not only are starting a freshman who was a linebacker until last week, but they also have turned the ball over 22 times, fourth most in FBS. Johnson is more than willing.
“Whatever I can do to help the team and get to a ‘W,’ then I’m just going to do my job,” Johnson said.
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Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog