On the morning of Oct. 8, Paul Johnson came to a conclusion – Georgia Tech’s defense wasn’t very good, and it showed no signs of improvement. The Georgia Tech coach fired defensive coordinator Al Groh and called on secondary coach Charles Kelly to serve as the interim coordinator for the remainder of the season.
In seven games, Kelly hasn’t worked miracles. At the least, he has begun the clean-up job for the mess that the Tech defense had become.
“I think it’s gotten better at times,” said Johnson, not a man given to undue praise. “For sure, it’s better than it was.”
Kelly has one game remaining as interim coordinator, against USC in the Sun Bowl Dec. 31. To make one last impression on his employer, all he’ll have to do is contain the nation’s best wide receiver, USC’s Marqise Lee, and an offense dotted with NFL-bound stars.
“It’s a big challenge,” Kelly said of facing the Trojans. “But you know what? That’s why you play the game.”
The statistics don’t make a slam-dunk case that the defense has improved. In fact, by two important metrics, the defense has been virtually the same. Tech allowed 5.84 yards per play and 30.2 points per game under Groh this season. Under Kelly, the averages were 5.85 and 29.7.
Tech was worse in the red zone with Kelly, but averaged 2.6 sacks per game, almost one more per game than with Groh. Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson torched the Jackets for 40-plus points in consecutive games, a first in school history, with Groh at the helm. BYU, North Carolina and Georgia also put up 40-plus with Kelly in charge.
The offenses that Tech faced in the final seven games were probably better as a group. While Boston College ranks No. 98 in total offense in FBS and Maryland dead last at No. 120, the Jackets also played three top-30 offenses –North Carolina, Florida State and Georgia. Tech faced Clemson (No. 9) in the final game of Groh’s tenure but no other top-30 teams and also played Presbyterian, which turned out to be a weak team even on the FCS level.
A few things commend Kelly’s run, though. One of Johnson’s biggest problems with Groh’s defense was its inability to force punts. At the time of his firing, the Jackets had a third-down efficiency rate of 47.8 percent. in the seven games since, the average has been 36.8 percent.
The others are the second halves against North Carolina and Florida State in the ACC title game. Against the Tar Heels, Tech gave up 382 yards and 36 points after one half and one play in the second half. For the remainder, UNC scored 14 points (seven off an interception return for a touchdown) and gained 115 yards. On their final seven offensive possessions, the Tar Heels scored once as Tech rallied for a 68-50 win.
Against the Seminoles, Tech gave up touchdowns on three of FSU’s first four possessions, on drives totaling 182 yards. After halftime, FSU didn’t dent the scoreboard, punting twice and turning the ball over three times.
“The last half of the ACC Championship game was probably the best half of defense we’ve played all year,” Johnson said.
Said Kelly, “I’d like to have more consistency. But I thought that our kids fought extremely hard in the championship game.”
Cornerback Louis Young said players have grown more comfortable with Kelly as the season has progressed.
“I think he’s doing a wonderful job,” he said. “The energy’s good.”
During bowl practice, Johnson said that he hadn’t begun actively looking for a full-time coordinator and that he will sit down with Kelly and other defensive assistants after the bowl game to discuss the future. Whatever happens, Kelly has Johnson’s appreciation.
“He went into a tough situation and he’s worked hard,” he said.
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Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog