ATLANTA — Well, Al Groh can expect at least one Christmas card this holiday season.
"A lot of thanks goes to him for my success," Georgia Tech safety Jerrard Tarrant said Monday of the Yellow Jackets' defensive coordinator.
While Tarrant is quick to insist that with, at a maximum, seven games left in Georgia Tech's season he has yet to tap into the full potential of his overall success, he still nonetheless feels a great debt of gratitude to Groh's confidence in his abilities.
Long before the season began and long before the Yellow Jackets headed to Rose Bowl practice fields for their first springtime workouts in March, the new assistant coach sat the junior defensive back down and had a long conversation about his strengths in a changing defense.
"He said I had a really nice knack for seeing the ball," Tarrant said.
But it was more than that. Upon watching film of Tarrant and seeing his speed, quickness and soft catching and kick-returning hands, Groh — who came to Georgia Tech this season after stints as a head coach and assistant coach on the NFL and college levels — decided the player had all the tools to be a playmaker.
"He sure gave off obvious evidence of that (Saturday)," Groh said, moments after Tarrant's two interceptions against Middle Tennessee State helped spark a 42-14 Yellow Jackets win last weekend.
For all but about two weeks of his Georgia Tech career, Tarrant was a cornerback before Groh arrived. A former safety in high school, he was switched four seasons ago to the outside and charged with covering receivers.
Groh believed that had to change. Tarrant had to stop turning his back on quarterbacks and instead face them and see the whole field.
"At corner, a lot of times, things aren't in front of you as much. From what we had seen early in his career, he has a good sense of the ball, and we wanted to get him back there deep where he could see things," Groh said. "He really went after the ball aggressively (Saturday) and did a real good job."
In addition to his two interceptions, Tarrant had three tackles. His single-game interception total rivaled that of former safety Morgan Burnett, who last had two interceptions for the Yellow Jackets last September against North Carolina. Tarrant now has three on the season and five for his career.
His two previous picked passes came against Clemson in the ACC championship game and Iowa in the Orange Bowl late last season.
Part of what has helped Tarrant feel more comfortable in the secondary has been playing alongside a pair of veteran cornerbacks in Dominique Reese and Mario Butler. Reese, a senior from Auburn, Ala., contributed to one of Tarrant's interceptions off Middle Tennessee State quarterback Dwight Dasher after he blitzed out of a dime package to fluster the signal-caller.
"We just mesh well now, and I think you can see it on the field," Reese said. "Whether we're in man or Cover 2, we just both know where each other's at. We play well together."
Reese in the spring made his own switch in the defensive backfield. After playing safety much of his time at Georgia Tech, Groh and the defensive staff moved him to Tarrant's former cornerback position.
"We both went into the season and into the spring with open minds about a change of position. Coach (Groh) explained to Jerrard that he could make more plays at safety, and he felt my hips were looser to make more plays at corner," Reese said. "So we both went into it with open arms and open minds that we would make plays wherever we were playing at. Really, we both just wanted to be on the field."
After seven games of both players being on the field often, the changes have appeared to finally begin showing that they may ultimately pay off, Reese said.
"Everybody's doing their job. They're trying to win on their assignments," Reese said of the defense. "That was the big thing: win on your assignment. ... So we're all fitting up where we're supposed to fit, and that's what makes the defense feel a lot better."
During the first four games or so, that was not the case, Reese said.
"You were just trying to fly around and play hard, but you've got to fly around, play hard and do your job," Reese said. "We're finally doing the job part."