Head Coach Paul Johnson announced this afternoon that Defensive Coordinator Al Groh, who had been in charge of Tech’s defense for the past two and a half seasons, has been fired. The move comes following a three-game stretch that saw the Jackets give up an average of 46 points and over 570 yards per game in losses to Miami, Middle Tennessee State, and Clemson.
Groh was hired in Jan. 2010, shortly after his nine-year stint as head coach at Virginia came to an end. He implemented a 3-4 defensive scheme at Tech upon arrival, and the unit saw occasional success and improvement during his tenure but regressed badly this season in multiple areas, ultimately leading to his dismissal.
“I appreciate all the help and input from [defensive assistants] Charles Kelly, Joe Speed and Andy McCollum, and the effort of all the players. I aimed to give the best that I had every day. It’s been an honor to be a part of the legacy of Georgia Tech football,” Groh said in a statement.
Kelly, who has been on Tech’s coaching staff since 2006 and had handled the secondary since 2010, will take over as interim coordinator as Johnson shuffles the defensive staff. Special teams coordinator Dave Walkosky will coach the defensive line, McCollum will handle the inside linebackers, and Speed will coach the outside linebackers. Johnson plans to involve himself more directly in coaching the defense.
With the team heading into a bye week before its Oct. 20 game against Boston College, the Jackets have two weeks for Kelly and the other defensive assistants to prepare.
When he came to Tech, Groh was expected to bring knowledge and experience to help improve a unit that struggled badly in Johnson’s first two seasons under Dave Wommack. He was most well-known for his work as an assistant to Bill Parcells for several NFL teams dating back to the late 1980’s. Notably, Groh was the linebackers coach for the 1990 New York Giants and the defensive coordinator for the 1996 New England Patriots, both of which reached the Super Bowl.
“There’s no question that Al knows defense. He’s very knowledgeable. But the communication wasn’t transcending to the field. There [were] a lot of errors, a lot of [trouble] getting lined up, and those types of issues kept repeating themselves,” Johnson said.
During his first offseason, Groh installed the 3-4 defensive front that he favored from his time in the NFL and at Virginia. It was a major change from Tech’s traditional 4-3 set, one that was expected to take some time to see good results. A group of players recruited to play in the 4-3, where the defensive line was primarily responsible for generating the pass rush, would have to adapt to a defensive scheme that relied on bigger, stronger linemen capable of occupying multiple blockers and mainly used the linebackers to bring pressure.
Tech improved defensively from 2010 to 2011, but the unit has been a liability in the first half of this season. Through six games, Tech is allowing 30.2 points and 431 yards per game despite widespread expectations of significant improvement in the third year of the 3-4 scheme.
“I was hopeful that as we started the third year [of the 3-4], we would see some improvement. I was encouraged the first [game] of the year, but it became apparent that it was short-lived. The last three games were more a carry-over of the last six games a year ago,” Johnson said.
The Jackets have particularly struggled in the fourth quarter, allowing at least 10 points in the final period in each of their four losses, including at least 14 points in each of the last three games.
“I go back to the last games from last year, like the [Sun Bowl against Utah]. The Virginia Tech game [in 2012] was eerily similar to the bowl game, and the Miami game was similar to that…We played really well at Virginia Tech for three quarters. I think what’s lost is that they scored three of the last four times they had the ball, and they missed a field goal the other time,” Johnson said.
Groh’s first season was a rough one. Tech gave up 371.6 yards per game, good for ninth in the ACC, largely due to ineffectiveness on the defensive line against the run. Starting nose tackle Logan Walls, a 4-3 tackle who was listed at 295 pounds, was undersized for the 3-4 nose tackle position—which calls for a massive lineman capable of occupying multiple blockers—and the rest of the defensive front struggled in their new roles as well, and the result was that Tech gave up 169.7 rushing yards per game.
In pass defense, the unit failed to get pressure from the pass rush, as nobody aside from outside linebacker Steven Sylvester was effective and the team only recorded 17 sacks on the season. As a result, a secondary that featured three seniors in the starting lineup was at a disadvantage and was only able to record eight interceptions.
The 2011 season was an improvement in multiple regards. With the unit more familiar with the scheme and more talented players getting added playing time, including outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu and 345-pound nose tackle T.J. Barnes, the Jackets were more effective in all aspects of the game. Behind an improved pass rush, Tech finished second in the ACC in pass defense, and the unit as a whole shined in a home upset of then-No. 6 Clemson.
But in this season, Groh’s third and the team’s third under the 3-4 scheme, the Jackets have not played well despite returning most of the starting lineup from 2011. Sack and turnover numbers are low, and among other things, the unit as a whole has had fundamental issues with missing tackles and failing to wrap up properly throughout the season.
“We had a lot of the same recurring problems. We have a hard time getting off the field on third down; that was the case a year ago…we’re 109th in the country in third-down defense. There were some recurring themes where we just weren’t getting better,” Johnson said.
Johnson did not provide any information about his long-term plans for the coordinator role after this season.