ATLANTA — Scoring has rarely been a problem since Paul Johnson became Georgia Tech's coach four years ago. Keeping the opponents from scoring has often been another story for the Yellow Jackets.
After Georgia Tech's first preseason scrimmage Saturday, defensive coordinator Al Groh said he believes the Yellow Jackets will be better on that side of the ball.
Georgia Tech allowed 26.1 points per game last season to rank No. 60 nationally during an 8-5 season.
Senior nose tackle T.J. Barnes (6-feet-7, 340 pounds), along with ends Izaan Cross (6-4, 300) and Emannuel Dieke anchor Groh's 3-4 defense and give the Yellow Jackets more size than they have had in Groh's first two seasons.
"The first group that is more experienced, handled a lot of things," Groh said after a scrimmage that was closed to the public and media as the Jackets continued preparing for their season opener Sept. 3 at ACC rival Virginia Tech. "The communication is positive."
Not so long ago, the Jackets were stingy on a regular basis.
Tech allowed an average of fewer than 21 points for seven straight seasons from 2002 through Johnson's first season in '08. But after the Jackets allowed 24.8 points per game in '09 — even as Tech went to and won the ACC Championship game by averaging 33.8 points — defensive coordinator Dave Wommack was replaced by Groh in 2010.
The Jackets allowed 25.2 and 26.1 points per game the past two seasons. That's three straight years moving in the wrong direction, and even though the Jackets scored 34.3 points per game last season to rank No. 21 in the nation, they finished 8-5.
In 52 games since Johnson was hired, the Jackets have scored 21 or more points 40 times. Yet in that same span, Tech has allowed 21 or more points on 35 occasions. In their final four games last season, the Jackets surrendered 37, 31, 31 and 30 points. Their only win was 38-31 at Duke.
Groh typically says he does not care about statistics that relate to yards allowed per game. Rather, he said, "Our goal is to affect the scoreboard."
Redshirt freshman safety Fred Holton and redshirt freshman inside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days are the only potential starters who have not already received quite a bit of playing time.
Dieke, who had 20 tackles and two sacks last season in a reserve role, said that with so much experience returning on defense he expects Groh to trust the Jackets to do more than in the past two seasons.
"There's continuity out there," Dieke said. "Coach Groh has instilled a lot of confidence in us because this is our third year in the system. We know the system, we know what he expects of us. If we see anything, he gives us the freedom to make an adjustment as long as we make a play."
The most glaring loss on defense is linebacker Julian Burnett. He led the Jackets in tackles in each of the past two seasons, but suffered what appears to be a career-ending neck injury in the Sun Bowl loss to Utah. Junior Daniel Drummond and sophomore Quayshawn Nealy, who split time at the other inside linebacker spot last season, are back and Hunt-Days has shown promise inside along with redshirt freshman Anthony Harrell.
Outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu and redshirt junior Brandon Watts has been moved from the inside to the outside where his excellent speed figures to be better utilized.
Starting cornerbacks Rod Sweeting, a senior, and Louis Young, a junior are back. Jemea Thomas -- a junior who had 50 tackles and three interceptions last season while playing safety and corner -- and starting junior safety Isaiah Johnson return as well. Holton was in line to start last season as a freshman before a late-summer Achilles tendon injury ended his season.
In the middle of everything is Barnes. He's always been big, and he's worked hard in the off season to improve his conditioning. Last season, he was limited to about a dozen to 15 plays per game backing up graduated senior Logan Walls, who was better suited to be a 4-3 tackle than a 3-4 nose.
After Saturday's scrimmage, offensive guard Will Jackson said, "In the past, T.J. was not much of a threat to rush the passer, but he's a lot quicker."
Groh is spending less time teaching, and more time refining and expanding.
"In the past we've had to really spell it out," he said. "Now, a lot of them really understand the concepts of what we're doing so it gives us the opportunity to not only incorporate new concepts within a call, but to mix and match to solve the issues that the offense presents."