Unproven Georgia Tech defense faces test against Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Georgia Tech is more than just an offense.

But exactly how much more?

As the Yellow Jackets swarm South Bend this weekend, their defense remains shrouded in mystery — as unproven, perhaps, as newly minted Notre Dame starting quarterback DeShone Kizer. A season ago, sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas and a lethally versatile option offense ignited an 11-win season, dragging Georgia Tech to national relevance with a decisive Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State.

To put it bluntly, its defense didn’t help.

Buried in the fine print of an otherwise triumphant season are some sobering statistics. In 14 games, Georgia Tech allowed:

• 25.7 points per game (53rd nationally)

• 411.3 total yards per game (81st)

• 167.7 rushing yards per game (64th)

• 243.7 passing yards per game (90th)

• 45.6 percent 3rd down conversions (114th)

That’s a flood, not a trickle. Georgia Tech’s persistent mediocrity, specifically in passing and third down defense, can be attributed to its lack of a disruptive pass rush, which managed just 20 sacks (97th nationally) and 61 tackles for loss (103rd) last season.

But as always, a new season brings new assurances.

Our pass rush is better. Our pass defense is better. Our defense is better.

Paul Johnson has yet to see the proof.

“Hopefully we’ve gotten better. We think we have,” said Johnson, Georgia Tech’s ninth-year head coach. “But certainly, Saturday will be the biggest challenge of the year for them so far. It’ll be a good measuring stick to see where we’re at.”

Georgia Tech may be unproven, but it isn’t inexperienced. Heading into its first road test of the season, 10 of the Yellow Jackets’ 11 defensive starters are juniors or seniors, including five redshirt seniors. Eight of its top 10 tacklers from 2014 return, as well as its top three sack artists — KeShun Freeman (4.5 sacks), P.J. Davis (4.0 sacks) and Adam Gotsis (3.0 sacks).

That unit has been predictably stout thus far, allowing a grand total of 520 total yards and 16 points in wins over Tulane and Alcorn State.

But again, that was Tulane and Alcorn State.

"They have got a lot of tradition, a lot of history, and they have had some really good teams,” Johnson said of Notre Dame. “But, it’s just like going to play anybody else. You have got to get ready to go play. We never made a big deal about going there to play. It’s just like going to Clemson to play or going somewhere else. You’ll be playing against good players.

“But, it ought to be fun. You ought to embrace it — a chance to compete."

The game will likely be won or lost up front, where Notre Dame’s offensive line has bullied opponents to the tune of 467 rushing yards and 5.4 yards per carry in its first two games.

Either Georgia Tech’s defensive line will show marked improvement, harassing first-time starting quarterback DeShone Kizer, or it will crumble.

“I think we’ve got more depth. Again, we’re going to see,” Johnson said. “This is going to be their best test. They’re going to play against a good offensive line on Saturday. So we’ll see. They’re a year older. We’ve got more of them. That’s going to be positive and beneficial.

“But it’s like I tell the players all the time: ‘Show me. Don’t tell me.’ We’ve got to see.”

Johnson will see on Saturday, one way or another. And on the other side, so will Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

“They're going to be aggressive,” Kelly said. “You've got a freshman quarterback, a veteran defensive coordinator. You've got a veteran secondary that is willing to take man-to-man coverage and get after the football. I mean, you can put two and two together there, bring some pressure, trying to force some turnovers in that regard.

“So we're going to have to be detailed in our work there and picking up various pressures and defeating man-to-man coverage. I think that's certainly what I would do.”

In the early stages of another promising season, Georgia Tech’s option offense looks as potent as ever.

The team’s win record, however, may hinge on the other side of the ball.

“I don’t think we’re as good as people think we are right now. We’ll see,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got the ability to get there. But we have to improve. We have to get better.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Tulane tight end Trey Scott (83) makes the catch against Georgia Tech linebacker P.J. Davis (40) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)