New-look defense offers fresh start for Georgia Tech

Over the next few weeks, we'll be chatting with each ACC coach to go over the highs and lows of 2017 and take a look at what's in store for spring practice and the season ahead.

Next up, Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, whose Yellow Jackets missed out on a bowl for the second time in three years, but could prove an intriguing team in 2018.

What's the take on last year? You were in virtually every game, saw your offense really blossom despite a lot of turnover, and yet, you finished 5-6 and missed a bowl.

Johnson: It was frustrating and disappointing. We had a lot of close games and we couldn't find a way to pull them out. I think in four different games, we were up two scores in the second half. We lost those games we felt like we had a chance to win, and then not having a chance to play the full schedule was frustrating, too. So to finish one game under .500 was certainly not what we set out to be, and everyone was disappointed.

Justin Thomas was a foundational guy at Georgia Tech, but TaQuon Marshall not only filled those shoes but really became a star. How did you evaluate his year and where can he improve for 2018?

Johnson: Oh yeah, there's no question he can improve a great deal. We just finished a lot of the cut-ups, and he was dynamic with the ball in his hands and did a nice job of creating some things when there wasn't a lot there. But he can be way more consistent, especially in the passing game and with his reads, as well. There were times when we missed way too many reads.

When you talk about the struggles in the passing game, how much of that is on Marshall, how much on the reads he's making, how much on the receivers not getting open?

Johnson: Usually it's all of the above. Finding the right reads, being accurate, having guys who can get separation. For us, the better our running game is, the better our passing game will be since a lot of it is geared off play-action. If we do a better job with the reads and in the running game, the passing game is going to be better.

The foundation of what you guys do starts up front, and you return four starters on the line who are young overall, but with significant experience. Do you see the O-line as a real strength?

Johnson: It should be a good unit. We have most of them back, and three of them are juniors who have been starting since they were freshmen. You hope they'll be bigger and stronger, but I think we lost really one receiver, Ricky Jeune, who was our go-to guy last year that we've got to find that guy a little. But other than that, we pretty much return everybody [on offense] except for Shamire [Devine].

What kind of impact can new defensive coordinator Nate Woody make? Is it more cultural on X's and O's?

Johnson: The cultural standpoint, we'll see. The team kind of sets that. It'll be interesting to see, we're going from an even front to an odd front, so there'll be some position changes for some guys. I think our guys are excited about it. He's been pretty aggressive, and I think kids enjoy playing in that style of defense.

People always question the challenge of preparing a defense when it practices against your style of offense. I'm not sure it's really dramatically different than teams with tempo or spread style offenses, but do you see it as something unique you have to deal with when trying to get the defense straightened out?

Johnson: I think that's just a crock. It's excuses. Playing against our offense is not a whole lot different than playing against the spread with the zone-reads and all that stuff. You play it the same way. If you look, I think the offense should help the defense. That's one of the things I was impressed with Nate, when I talked to him about it; he embraces it because it helps play the run, it helps make you tough, and all you have to look -- a team like Army, those teams are top five, top 10 in the country in defense. So it hasn't hurt them. When I was at Georgia Southern, we were perennially in the top 10 in defense. If anything, you play less snaps. We probably played less possessions and less snaps than anybody in the country except Army a year ago. A normal game for us is 10 to 12 possessions. For everybody else, it's 17 to 18, so you're essentially playing a quarter less every game.

You lost some established talent in the secondary. Is that your big concern defensively heading into spring?

Johnson: I think we clearly lost some guys who started there and played a lot, and we feel like we've got some good young guys that are going to get a chance to finally play. We'll see what happens. I think it makes it a lot easier back there if you can get some pressure, and the area we struggled in defensively so much was in the area of sacks and tackles for loss. So if we don't improve in that aspect of it, it's not going to matter who's in the secondary.

Would you prefer your guys approach spring ball with a chip on their shoulder because of last year, or do you think it's best to start fresh?

Johnson: I think the guys who played certainly need to remember what it was like. But we don't dwell on it. Every team is different. When we start in the spring, we'll start with the fundamentals and try to improve on the things we need to improve upon. With a new defensive installation, it'll be about how fast they can go. We'll be day-to-day and see if we can get caught up. There'll be a lot of position changes over there. Some of the guys who were inside backers may be outside. Some safeties may be backers. So all that thing will sort itself out. Offensively, we just have to get better at our basic stuff. We can be so much better than we were a year ago.