As Georgia Tech’s defensive linemen labored through footwork drills Tuesday morning, one of them failed to perform with requisite precision. Defensive line coach Mike Pelton’s response was simple — everyone had to do the drill over.
Pelton continued to rail in the hot sun, threatening more repercussions. From about 30 yards away, the specifics were unclear, but the tone was similar to “If you don’t stop hitting your sister, I will turn this car around!”
“That’s kind of how he treats us — he treats us like we’re his own kids,” nose tackle Adam Gotsis said. “If we’re not going to listen to him, we’re going to get punished.”
Pelton, hired in January, has the considerable responsibility of raising the level of play of a group that underperformed last season, isn’t deep in experience and is crucial to the success of the Yellow Jackets’ defense. Early results suggest he might be able to do it.
“I think he brings a lot of energy and coaches effort really hard,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I think his players respect him and like him, and that’s a big part. I’ve been pleased watching him coach. He does a good job.”
Said Pelton, “They’re showing signs of retainment from the spring, which is always a good thing.”
Pelton, whose 13-year coaching career includes the past two seasons at Auburn, has another endorsement from Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora, whose Pro Bowl career was launched under Pelton’s tutelage at Troy.
“They are getting a great one,” Umenyiora said Tuesday. “He’s fun, energetic. He really took care of me when I was down there, me and DeMarcus (Ware, the Dallas star whom Pelton also coached).”
Tech needs the help. Pass rush has been a weakness since Derrick Morgan left for the NFL after the 2009 season. Last year, in large part because of the Jackets’ inability to get to the passer, opponents converted 41 percent of third downs, which ranked eighth in the ACC. Defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu said that improving the rush has been a message of preseason camp.
“Our line is a lot quicker and our moves — we have more moves and coach Pelton, he’s really schooling us on that,” Attaochu said. “It’s crazy how this stuff is translating to when we go to (11 on 11) and things like that. We’re becoming more technical players.”
Pelton has emphasized technique, attention to detail and explosiveness off the snap. For a group that can’t rely on overpowering offensive linemen, getting upfield quickly and defeating blocks with proper technique is critical. Over the summer, the linemen did extensive training to develop quicker and stronger hands — doing things such as working a boxing speed bag — and doing medicine-ball training to develop power out of their three-point stance.
“First step and hands, he’s always preaching that,” defensive end Christopher Crenshaw said. “When you do it, it’s pretty. It really works.”
Gotsis said that forgetting fundamentals is what upsets Pelton the most.
“If we want to be that better player and get that job to start or to get on the field, we need to listen to what he’s saying and not go back to our old stuff,” Gotsis said. “Because our old stuff is what got us to 7-7.”
In video sessions, the slightest flaw does not go undetected.
“You can’t really get too much right with him,” Attaochu said.
The Jackets will need to do as much right as possible. Of the possible starting foursome of ends Emmanuel Dieke and Attaochu, Gotsis at nose tackle and Euclid Cummings at defensive tackle, Attaochu is a veritable star. The other three have shown well in the spring and preseason, but do not have a history of production.
Behind them are a host of inexperienced players. Of the five linemen listed on the second string on the precamp depth chart, three (Patrick Gamble, Roderick Rook-Chungong and Tyler Stargel) are redshirt freshmen and the other two (Jimmie Kitchen and Anthony Williams) have played a combined 21 games with 21 tackles.
It does help that the group has five seniors.
“They know they’ve got one chance, but they’ve accepted me, I’ve accepted them, and we’ve been rolling on from there,” Pelton said.
Among his players’ least favorite implements of instruction is the gauntlet drill. A lineman uses pass-rush techniques to get past one player, then another player and then one more to try to get to a tackling bag stationed about 20 yards away. However, once beaten, each player is allowed to retreat to the bag, meaning it can turn into a one-on-three drill.
Told the drill sounded like a kung-fu movie, where a lone protagonist fends off swarms of enemies, Cummings said, “It’s a little bit more, I feel.”
Attaochu, who made the transition to end from linebacker in the spring, spoke with genuine enthusiasm about his new coach.
“Guys are getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s exciting.”