Five thoughts about Georgia Tech’s change at defensive coordinator

4:59 p.m Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Danny Karnik/AJC
Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof watches linebacker T.D. Roof (his son) go through footwork drills at practice.

The departure of Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof for a co-defensive coordinator job at N.C. State last week ended his five-year term leading the Yellow Jackets defense. It also created an opportunity for coach Paul Johnson to become more competitive in the increasingly challenging ACC.

A few thoughts about both topics:

1. Ultimately, the way the season unfolded, it was perhaps inevitable that a change had to be made. Johnson’s frustration with the defense, particularly the play at the end of the halves, was obvious and evidently beyond the point of no return.

There seemed to be systemic issues, such as the continued failure to develop a consistent pass rush and often poor tackling.

But, consider this: Of Tech’s 10 FBS opponents, Tech held its opposition under its season scoring average six times. As dreadful as the finish to the Miami game was, the Hurricanes were one of the six. The only team to limit Clemson to fewer than the 24 points that the Tigers scored against the Jackets was Auburn.

It could be reasonably argued that the defense’s play, while hardly elite, was not a disaster, either, and the same might be said of Roof’s tenure.

That’s not to say that the final outcome – Roof not in place as Tech’s defensive coordinator – was not unwarranted. This season in particular had to be better than it was, as senior-heavy as it was.

This was an OK defense. It did a couple of things – stop opponents on third down and prevent big plays – particularly well. But it didn’t make big plays of its own – tackles for losses and takeaways – with any regularity. And when it needed to find a way to make a stop against Tennessee, Miami and Virginia, it could not. (In the same games, it should be noted, the offense and special teams had chances to deliver also, and all fell one play short.)

2. For what it’s worth, the three highest rankings for defensive efficiency (by the metrics of the Football Outsiders website) in Johnson’s 10 seasons took place under Roof’s watch.

What those rankings were, though, is the issue going forward for Tech – 62nd, 66th and 70th.

Tech’s recruiting classes from 2013 through 2017 – the classes that supplied Roof with the bulk of his personnel – had an average ranking of 55.2 (247 Sports). Obviously, recruiting rankings need to be considered with a very large grain of salt. And also, obviously, Roof had a significant hand in evaluating and recruiting that talent.

A pet peeve of Johnson’s is his belief (probably accurately) that his defenses have not been held to the same standards as his offense. And so this isn’t to say that a job change was not in order or that a marginally better defense would have been lauded.

Still, given the way that the ACC is improving, perhaps it isn’t a great surprise that his defenses weren’t above average.

Had Tech’s roster included an All-ACC defensive end, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the defense would have been better to the point that Roof would still be in place. But Tech has been unable to recruit and/or develop such a player since Jeremiah Attaochu, who played his last game for Tech in 2013.

Some of that, again, falls on Roof and the defensive staff, but some of that also goes back to the same frustrations that Johnson has had about not having the recruiting resources to be in the game for the players needed to compete in the ACC.

Whoever the new coordinator is, he will have to take on many of the same challenges that Roof did. This isn’t to say that the new hire will be unable to clear the bar that Roof set, but it won’t necessarily be a given.

A question to ask: How much better will Roof’s successor need to be to remain in good standing?

3. Johnson will be making his fourth defensive coordinator hire, following Dave Wommack, Al Groh and Roof. Wommack and Groh were both fired. Roof, if not for his hire at N.C. State, likely would have joined them.

It’s not an admirable track record, obviously. At a time when the ACC as a whole and the Coastal Division in particular is improving – not to mention Georgia – this is a decision that is critical. The improvement across the ACC has reduced the advantage that Johnson has enjoyed with his unorthodox offense. Johnson’s decision on the hire of a defensive coordinator as well as the 10th assistant position could go a long way in determining how competitive Tech remains in the years ahead.

It’s not like Tech has been uncompetitive with Wommack, Groh and Roof. Quite the opposite. But it’s tougher to win the Coastal now than it perhaps ever been, and the chances of the Jackets being able to overcome a so-so defense with an offensive juggernaut is less. There’s a lot riding on this decision.

This season, aside from punter Pressley Harvin, Tech’s special teams generally were not a help to the Jackets’ chances.

Tech ranked 97th in kickoff return average and 68th in punt return average. The Jackets blocked one kick. In freshman Brenton King’s first season, field-goal range was limited. Touchback percentage was 124th nationally.

In Johnson’s 10 seasons, Tech has ranked in the top 30 in kickoff-return average just once and has been 90th or lower five times.

Undoubtedly, it will be an area that Johnson again pays keen attention to this offseason and in the spring. Johnson said during the early signing period that coaches gave priority to players who could return kicks and punts, and he also said that the team will be more active in the graduate-transfer market, which could net the Jackets a kicker.

5. A few things will remain with me from covering Tech during Roof’s tenure, beyond the work he put on the field.

Primarily, I got the clear impression that he put all of himself into his work, cared about his players and agonized when his defense didn’t play to the standards he had set. More than that, he is a decent man who was easy to like.

His give-and-take in interviews revealed someone with a big laugh, who didn’t think of himself as a big deal, who didn’t mind poking fun at himself or reporters, liked to tell stories and had a human side.

I remember a news conference that my colleague Jeff Schultz attended. You may know that Jeff’s son, Josh, struggled with a substance-abuse problem that nearly claimed his life. (Jeff recounted the journey in a story that is worth your time to read.)

At any rate, Roof either was waiting to speak or had already finished, and he made a specific point to seek out Jeff to ask how Josh was doing. It might not strike you as much. But it’s not something everybody does, particularly in a setting like that, with someone he didn’t know particularly well. I know I don’t. It’s not an easy conversation to broach, especially when you don’t know what the answer is going to be.

I think people on both sides of the reporter/source aisle sometimes don’t always view the opposite side with a great deal of humanity; it’s easy to treat the other side with suspicion and to keep your guards up. That wasn’t Roof’s approach. 

I once asked a longtime employee of the athletic association, someone lower on the totem pole, about favorite coaches. I put a lot of stock into the idea that how you treat people who have no ability to help you says a lot about you, and so I was particularly curious for the answer. There’s a lot of coaches in the athletic department that I respect and think of as entirely decent people. But the only coach that the staffer named was Roof.

It doesn’t mean that his job performance didn’t merit questioning, or that fans shouldn’t have been frustrated. But, hopefully he’ll be remembered three-dimensionally, as someone who cared about Tech and the team and did so with grace and humor.

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