You could hand Paul Johnson the New Christy Minstrels and in a month he’d have them rushing for 300 yards. So long as he’s at Georgia Tech, the offense will be fine. As for the defense …
Tech is bound for the Orange Bowl with a defense ranked 54th nationally in yards allowed. By way of comparison, Georgia ranked 30th in total defense and just fired three of its four coaches. Tech won games by scores of 30-27 (twice), 41-30, 49-44, 56-31, and 39-34. It was a wild and successful ride — can’t argue with a conference title — but how long can a program subsist on offense alone?
Johnson said this week he would “take a look” at his defense after the Orange Bowl, but clearly he’s not going to change any coaches. (If he were, he would have already.) And in his press briefing this week he told reporters: “[The defense is] part of the team and they won 11 games, so that’s good. They got a stop in the [ACC] championship to end the game and a stop in the Wake Forest game to put it into overtime … I tell the team all the time it doesn’t matter if you win 7-6 or 47-46, you all win or you all lose. They don’t break it up.”
Trouble is, Tech figures to lose junior end Derrick Morgan to the NFL draft. So: Subtract the ACC’s defensive player of the year from a unit that was already substandard –in neither of Tech’s past two games was the opponent induced to punt — and you get … what?
Better, Giff Smith hopes. He has standing in this issue, given that he’s Tech’s defensive line coach and its recruiting coordinator. Asked Wednesday if a defense sans Morgan would be destitute, Smith said: “We have young guys we made the decision to redshirt that might have helped us this year. The future bodes well. That said, we haven’t performed the way we wanted.”
Smith was the recruiting coordinator under Chan Gailey, and part of his mission has changed because of his new boss. Johnson’s offense isn’t a place for dropback quarterbacks or tight ends or receivers who want to catch 100 passes. But recruiting for defense has, Smith said, “stayed pretty standard.” Which means the Jackets are fishing the same pond as every other program.
Tech has had only two recruiting classes under Johnson, but neither has yielded a defender of the same exalted pedigree as Morgan. If we check the early rankings for 2010, we note that rivals.com puts the Jackets 37th nationally. (The 2009 class was rated 49th.) That wouldn’t seem a windfall, but …
Of Tech’s four four-star commitments for 2010, two are defensive linemen and two defensive backs. That would seem a good thing at the right time. Said Smith: “Coach Johnson has put an emphasis on getting players on that side of the ball.”
There are times when you’d swear Johnson prefers the game to come down to his offense having to make a drive or a play. He’s an offensive guy, and that part he can control. And sometimes it works: Tech won the ACC title on a touchdown with 1:20 to play, though the defense did have to make a final stand. But sometimes it doesn’t: You might recall the Jackets failing on their final possession against Georgia.
If Tech is to rise even higher — and Johnson makes it clear his goal is to play for the national championship — it must find a defense that can keep every game from turning into Arena football. That will happen only with better players, and better players only arrive via recruiting. Giff Smith insists he likes the way the wind is blowing: “We’re getting there,” he said.
Then he said something else: “We just need to get there quicker.”