ATLANTA — Through the whole offseason, all anyone wanted to talk about was that Georgia Tech offense.
Would the spread option really work? Would the Yellow Jackets be able to win games without much of a passing game?
Scant attention was paid to the other side of the line.
“You know,” defensive tackle Darryl Richard said, breaking into a sly grin, “it’s not too bad to operate in the shadows.”
While the new offense has endured its ups and downs, the defense has been a steadying force in a season that’s already exceeded most expectations. The No. 21 Yellow Jackets (6-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) are leading their division heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Virginia, having worked their way into the national rankings for the first time this year.
“We just try to play hard and play together and play fast,” star defensive end Michael Johnson said. “If you mess up, mess up going 100 percent, mess up going full speed, and move on to the next play.”
Under new coordinator Dave Wommack, Georgia Tech has allowed the fewest points in the ACC (11.6 a game) and trails only four teams nationally in the most important category of all. The Yellow Jackets are equally stout against the run and the pass, ranking second in the conference in both categories.
Johnson and his teammates are still kicking themselves for giving up two third-quarter touchdowns to Clemson last Saturday, turning a 14-3 lead into a 17-14 deficit. But the Yellow Jackets buckled down in the final period, and Josh Nesbitt threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas with just under 51/2 minutes remaining for a 21-17 victory.
“You want to keep people out of the end zone,” Johnson said, repeating the most basic tenet of any defense. “When you do that, you give yourself good chance to win. We’re very disappointed that we gave up 14 third-quarter points to Clemson. We look forward to the opportunity Saturday to go back and improve on that.”
There’s little else to complain about.
The Yellow Jackets surrendered just 132 yards total in a shutout of Duke, their best performance ever in an ACC game. They have held three straight teams under 100 yards rushing, including Clemson, which didn’t have a run longer than 8 yards and finished with 51 overall.
Taking away a 71-yard run, Georgia Tech allowed Mississippi State just 37 yards on 27 carries in a 38-7 blowout. Even in the only loss, 20-17 at Virginia Tech, the defense couldn’t be blamed after giving up just 48 yards passing and limiting the Hokies to a pair of field goals in the second half.
All that while breaking in eight new starters.
“It’s not about who can do this or who can do that within the defensive unit,” Johnson said. “It’s about what we can do when we come together. Anybody could be the guy making a play in our defense.”
With offensive lines devoting much of their attention to Johnson, sophomore Derrick Morgan leads the team with 6.5 sacks and nine tackles behind the line. Despite persistent double-teaming, Johnson is still creating his share of havoc with three sacks and eight stops for negative yardage.
On the inside, Richard and fellow senior Vance Walker (28 tackles, two sacks, seven tackles for losses) give the Yellow Jackets one of the best run-stopping duos in the conference.
The secondary has been a major surprise. Forced to go with three sophomore starters, Georgia Tech ranks seventh nationally with 12 interceptions. Strong safety Morgan Burnett is the leader of that young group, tied for the NCAA lead with five picks and pacing his team with 44 tackles.
“He has great range,” first-year coach Paul Johnson said. “He got one interception against Clemson on the last play of each half. You’d like to see him knock those things down, but when you’re as good an athlete as he is, you can do that.”
Burnett played quarterback in high school, but he’s found a home in the secondary.
“I was joking with him when I got here that we were going to make him a quarterback, and I think he thought I was serious there for a while,” Johnson said. “It probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea.”
The most experienced defensive back, senior corner Jahi Word-Daniels, won’t be able to play Saturday because of a hamstring injury. But there might not be much of a dropoff with freshman Rashaad Reid, who’s already picked off two passes in his young career.
Wommack is the architect of the defense, one of those career assistants who spent plenty of time on the move during an eight-school, three-decade-long coaching career. Johnson only knew him through others, but the two hit it off when Wommack interviewed for yet another job.
“The Xs and Os part is important, but to me, when you put together a staff, you want guys who will continually get along with each other,” Johnson said. “When Dave came in here and we talked, I felt like he would be a good fit for who we had here and what was going on. You spend so much time together, and I wanted somebody who was going to be a team player.”
Wommack has instilled that mantra in his players.
“The main thing is trying to be a team,” Michael Johnson said. “Play together. Depend on each other. Trust the guy beside you and do your job. It’s been working so far.”