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Nate Woody’s Recipe for Success

By Jim Johnson
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It’s easy to see why fans are excited after the defense posted a shutout in week one -- the program’s first since 2013.

Fast. Arguably undersized, but indisputably fast. That was the preeminent attribute of Nate Woody’s defenses at Appalachian State. Or successful. That one works, too.

With the seemingly annual questions swirling around Paul Johnson’s job security, he decided it was time to move on from Ted Roof, who, in five seasons at Georgia Tech, actually recruited pretty well but the production never matched the talent. In fact, the on-field product typically vacillated between mediocre and downright bad -- never good, and hardly ever even above average.

It’s easy to see why fans are excited after the defense posted a shutout in week one -- the program’s first since 2013. However, this hire has been an obvious home run since well before any whistles were blown, fight songs played, or balls kicked off. Just look at Woody and Roof’s comparative resumes over the past three years:

Philosophically, Roof and Woody fall on opposite ends of the spectrum as far as aggressiveness.

As denoted by the former’s disparity in success rate and IsoPPP, as well as the low rankings in both adjusted sack and havoc rates, he consistently favored an extreme bend-don’t break mentality that, according to those points per drive averages, were actually pretty darn fragile.

On the flipside, Woody thanks to aggressiveness in the front seven and a playmaking secondary (see those passes defensed to incompletion ratio rankings in 2015 and 2017), was able to consistently create pressure and diminish offensive efficiency without sacrificing big plays. As a result his defenses, correspondingly, forced turnovers at a consistently higher rate than his now-predecessor’s and, most importantly, according to S&P+ and FEI, were just flat out better. It is worth noting, too, that the aforementioned rankings are adjusted for oppositional strength, so any differences in the conferences they played in are rendered irrelevant.

The sack and turnover differentials are extremely telling, but perhaps the most notable divergence was in the percentage of solo tackles. Whereas Roof’s teams, without fail were at least above the mean in that respect, Woody’s squads were usually among the lowest in the nation. Team defense is clearly at a premium for the latter and his boys absolutely fly to ball. It’s almost a given at this point that, if nothing else, the former App State man’s defenders will be a gang tackling bunch.

That was on full display in his debut against Alcorn State. Their 2.86 yards per play allowed were the fewest Georgia Tech has given up in over a decade, and their three turnovers gained put them on track to best last year’s season total before the end of this month.

Granted, that was just Alcorn State. His first true test will come this weekend against a South Florida team that ranked in the top 30 of S&P+ last year, and the top 20 in offensive IsoPPP. The Bulls experienced a lot of turnover from 2017, but they’re young, fast, and explosive. A year ago, under Roof, this would have been a matchup nightmare for the Jackets. Now, with Woody at the helm, not so much.

USF has only lost four games in the last two years, but three of them came against defenses that ranked in the top 40 in success rate allowed -- just as Woody’s have for the past three years and counting.

It would stand to reason that a more aggressive style would make oneself increasingly susceptible to big plays -- and that may be true to an extent. Yet, the only proven way to truly limit offensive explosiveness is to limit offensive efficiency. Sure the big plays that inevitably happen will be abit more glaring, but the actual volume of such should mathematically decrease.

Personnel-wise, there are some concerns as far as dealing with one of the most physically imposing pass catching groups in college football, given an overall relative lack of size in the defensive backfield. However, what better way to mitigate those guys’ impact than by getting after quarterback Blake Barnett, who has only been in the system for a few months, and putting him in uncomfortable situations. Despite ranking 28th in overall offensive S&P+, they dropped to 97th on passing downs, so even though there’s a new man behind center, a clear track record of poor execution exists when South Florida gets knocked off schedule.

This was also a group that ranked only 78th in adjusted sack rate last year and lost two starters from the offensive line. Don’t be surprised if they get overwhelmed by the constant pressure that Woody is known for bringing.

These 2018 Yellow Jackets may not quite possess the ideal framework for Woody to run his defense at the height of its potential. There will always be some bumps in the road with any coordinator or scheme change. South Florida is a challenging opponent, littered with top tier athletes. Nevertheless, this will be an excellent barometer as to where this group is, how fast they’ve gotten there, and how close they are.

There is a lot to learn about Georgia Tech’s defense on Saturday, and a lot for them to learn about themselves. One thing, though, is already certain -- Nate Woody has a recipe for success, and judging by what they showed in week one, he’s already cooking.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP