Groh’s scheme offers new opportunities

Just seven days after Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack was let go, former Virginia Head Coach Al Groh had signed on to take his place.

Groh isn’t the young, high-profile coordinator that many schools seem to be looking for these days, but he’s exactly what this team and this defense needs—an experienced, knowledgeable coach who will work closely with the defense to help the unit take better advantage of its potential.

No other potential defensive coordinator could match Groh’s 39 years of experience on the sideline, which include two ACC Coach of the Year awards and two Super Bowl appearances.

There’s a blatant reason, though, that not everyone is happy with the hire. Groh brings with him a 3-4 defensive scheme, and this, according to many detractors, means the Jackets will take a step back before they adjust to the new system.

Will they really, though?

There are two general concerns here: that Tech’s players are unfamiliar with the scheme and will need time to adapt to the new system, and that Tech doesn’t have the proper defensive players to fill out a 3-4 defensive front.

The first concern should not be considered a problem. Step back for a minute and think about what Tech’s defensive scheme was last year.

It was the 4-2-5 for three games. That was ditched in favor of an inverted 4-3, which stuck for a while but had declining success as the year went on. Toward the end of the year, even some 3-4 plays entered the mix for a defense that seemed to show a new look on every drive.

The point here isn’t that the defense had significant experience with the 3-4; it’s that the unit lacked any sort of identity last season.

Groh’s 3-4 gives Tech’s defense an identity from day one, and a fairly unique one at that.

With regard to the second concern—how players will fit into the scheme—Groh has mentioned that he has already spent plenty of time analyzing Tech’s defensive players and how they might be adapted to the new scheme.

It’s not a new problem to have to deal with adapting 4-3 players into a 3-4 scheme. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers made the switch this past season, and despite concerns that they would struggle to adjust and pressure the quarterback, they finished as the No. 2 team in the league in total yards allowed and tied for No. 11 in sacks.

The conversion is indeed more difficult for college players, but there’s no guarantee that the Jackets will struggle to make the change, and from an athletic standpoint the personnel should be able to fit the scheme.

Filling in the defensive line spots should not be an issue. Tech already has two players with the size to play nose tackle in T.J. Barnes and J.C. Lanier. As for the end positions, smaller 4-3 defensive tackles are typically of ideal size to play 3-4 end and could shift outside to man those spots.

Bigger 4-3 ends who are geared toward stopping the run can also continue as down linemen. But Tech’s stock of defensive ends is richer in tall, athletic pass rushers who may be best employed as outside linebackers in the new scheme. Converting athletic defensive ends to outside linebackers is common, but far from universal, when 4-3 teams switch to a 3-4.

Each outside linebacker needs to be versatile enough to play in a two-point or three-point stance and be able to generate pressure from either one. Converted linemen could be good fits here, but Tech has a solid crop of linebackers that will also get opportunities at the edge positions.

Finding inside linebackers should be less of an issue. Brad Jefferson and Julian Burnett typically played the middle when Tech tried the 3-4 last season. Jefferson should be an ideal fit at one of the middle spots. The return of former starter Kyle Jackson should add another option in the linebacking corps.

Having the 3-4 defense will make Tech a complete nightmare in terms of opponents’ gameplans. Johnson’s offense already gives opponents fits on a week’s notice, and adding a defensive scheme rarely encountered in the college game will make lives far more difficult for opponents than for the players in the scheme.

I’m not guaranteeing that the new-look defense will be successful in year one—just optimistic that the players and coaches will reduce the learning curve greatly. Tech underwent a drastic overhaul on the offensive end just two seasons ago and that unit seems to be doing just fine.