Paul Johnson is hard on defensive coordinators. He’s about to hire his fifth (assuming we count Charles Kelly, interim guy) in a decade, and no Georgia Tech season is complete without the head coach griping about his defense. Even after the high-water mark of 2014, when the Yellow Jackets finished 11-3, he’d note that his defenders had yielded a record number of Orange Bowl yards.
Still, mounting a defense, pun intended, for the outbound Ted Roof isn’t easy. If we go by Brian Fremeau’s defensive efficiency rankings on Football Outsiders, here’s where his men ranked over his five seasons under Johnson – 77th, 70th, 62nd, 94th and 64th. We use efficiency rankings because total defense measures yards gained, which can flatter Tech because Johnson’s offense tends to move slowly and leave fewer plays for the opponent.
Tech’s defense improved on third down this year, which is never a bad thing, but it was terrible in end-of-half/game situations, which is almost always a bad thing. The Jackets scored a touchdown 48 seconds before halftime to cut Georgia’s lead to 14-7; the Bulldogs led 17-7 by the time the teams adjourned to their locker rooms. “I used as much time as I could,” Johnson said afterward.
The argument for Roof as a solid coordinator begins and ends with him having overseen Auburn’s defense in 2010, the year the Tigers won the national championship. But that team was 90 percent Cam Newton, a point underscored by Fremeau’s ratings. Of the past 10 titlists, nine ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency; in 2010, Auburn ranked 34th.
I’ll concede that Johnson never makes it easy on his defense. He goes for it on fourth down in places no other coach would even consider such a risk. He cares little for field-position football. He’ll defend – the pun is hereby belabored – his offense’s stats until the cows come home, but any praise for defenders is issued through gritted teeth. This program is based around the offense he designed, and sometimes you wonder if he cares more about Georgia Tech racking up yardage than he does Georgia Tech winning.
But you can’t watch Tech lose 42-41 to a Tennessee team that would go 0-8 in SEC play and not believe that the defensive issues remain systemic. Lest we forget, Tech’s two biggest regular-season victories with Roof as DC came in Athens: In the first, Georgia scored a touchdown to nose ahead with 18 seconds remaining; in the second, Tech’s winning score came after an interception that bounced off a Bulldog receiver. Even on the best of days, there wasn’t much stopping being done.
North Carolina State announced Friday that Roof had been hired as co-defensive coordinator, which was surely Johnson’s way of saying, “I didn’t push him; he jumped.” But theirs was a partnership – not nearly an equal partnership, we stipulate – that had lasted five years, or half Johnson’s time here. For the sake of both parties, it was time to move on.
Yes, they’d won an Orange Bowl together. They’d won it on a night Mississippi State gained 605 yards.