When new Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Nate Woody ran the Appalachian State defense, the Mountaineers routinely did the unlikely.
When matched against power-conference opponents, Woody’s defenses outperformed power-conference defenses. Clemson’s yardage against Appalachian State in their 2015 matchup was the Tigers’ second lowest during their run to the College Football Playoff Championship game.
In 2016, the Mountaineers limited Tennessee to 127 rushing yards; only Alabama did a better job against the Volunteers that season. Appalachian State held Georgia to fewer rushing yards this season (221) than Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Auburn (in the SEC Championship game) and Oklahoma.
Woody’s former boss, Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield, attributed it to two things. One, the Mountaineers have “always had a little bit of a chip on our shoulders and really kind of wanted to prove that we belonged. That’s just in our culture.” Second, he said, the unit’s reliance on speed over size causes problems.
“Those (offensive linemen) can’t bend good enough to get their hands on our defensive linemen,” he said. “We cause havoc. We get in the backfield.”
Going back to Woody’s 13 years running the defense at Wofford (2000-12), that preference has been a consistent. Mike Ayers, who retired in December after 30 seasons as head coach at Wofford, was a proponent of the 3-4 defense, once known as the 50 defense, out of practicality.
“It was one of those things where we felt like that playing 50 defense afforded us to be able to recruit guys that might not have been the biggest guys, but it afforded us a chance to play with undersized guys who were quick and tough and then play the scheme,” Ayers said.
It’s a philosophy that Woody will bring to Tech and one that coach Paul Johnson is counting on to raise the Yellow Jackets’ defensive standards. Over the years, Tech typically hasn’t won recruiting battles for elite prospects. It’s one reason why former athletic director Dan Radakovich hired Johnson 10 years ago, for an offensive system that proved its ability to produce with lesser talent.
“The great thing about a system is that sometimes the system can function without all those (highly rated) guys,” Johnson said Tuesday at Woody’s introductory news conference. “And I think that’s what you look to do. And I think that the system, while it’s a defense as opposed to an offense, that Nate runs has been very successful at a lot of places.”
Johnson recognized that knack out of Woody almost 20 years ago, when Woody was Ayers’ defensive coordinator at Wofford and Johnson was running the show at Georgia Southern. In those days of the Southern Conference, Georgia Southern was the one getting the best recruits.
“Yet they were still very competitive,” Johnson said. “They always were sound.”
Johnson and Woody shared a moment at the news conference reminiscing about their days as coaching rivals. Because Johnson “used to beat the dog out of us,” Woody said, he was surprised that Johnson made him a job offer.
“I don’t know, Coach, do you remember – was there a game that was even close?” Woody asked, turning to Johnson.
Johnson said nothing, laughing. Johnson, whose memory for past games and plays is astounding, may have been being gracious or may actually have forgotten.
“I don’t know,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t a fair fight.”
Georgia Southern beat Wofford 24-17 in 2000, when the Eagles won their second consecutive Division I-AA (now FCS) championship. It followed Woody’s pattern; only Georgia and Furman held the Eagles to fewer points that season. The next year, the Eagles steamrolled the Terriers 48-10.
Woody said he’ll always recruit the best player, but added that what that means is up for discussion. More than measurables, he wants players with “an intense desire to play hard, to get off blocks, chase the football and come back and do it again consistently,” he said.
He won’t back down on highly recruited players, “but likewise, I’m not going to pass on a guy that I can see that can execute our techniques, that’ll play hard, just because he’s not the beauty queen.”
An advantage of the 3-4 defense is its relative unpredictability. Where the four defensive linemen in the 4-3 are normally the ones to rush the quarterback, the 3-4 (with three down linemen and four linebackers) disguises who the fourth (or fifth) pass rushers will be.
And Woody’s defenses have brought the extra element of speed on the front.
“We’re more fast than we are big,” Satterfield. “We just cause problems for the guys up front. When you can do that, you can disrupt the running game as well as rush the passer.”
Its results were convincing. In the past three years, Appalachian State ranked in the top three in the Sun Belt Conference in scoring defense, total defense, third-down conversion rate, interceptions and plays of 10 yards or more.
“I’ve been at places where it wasn’t always the easiest to recruit, but we were able to find the guys that we needed and make it happen,” Woody said.
He is in such a place again.
“He’ll get it done,” Ayers said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”