- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Ted Roof returned to his alma mater this past January, he asked a graduate assistant to cut up 10-play highlight tapes of each returning defensive player. Georgia Tech's new defensive coordinator wanted to see the possibilities that lay ahead for the unit he was about to take over, and he figured whatever limitations they had would present themselves soon enough anyway.
"I think it's up to us as coaches to put kids in positions to be successful, and to ask them what they can do," Roof told ESPN.com. "For me, I will be able to see what they can't do, but I want to see what they can do, because we started this thing to try and put kids in the right positions with the right job descriptions and things of that nature."
What he saw was a collection of talent that has put the Yellow Jackets at No. 9 nationally in total defense and No. 8 in scoring defense. But the Ramblin' Wreck have plenty of company up there in the ACC, as evidenced by their No. 3 ranking within the conference in both of those categories.
Six ACC schools rank in the national top 25 of total defense. Six rank in the top 16 of scoring defense. Two of them square off Saturday, when Georgia Tech visits No. 14 Miami, which ranks a spot below the Yellow Jackets in the former category and a spot above them in the latter.
"We take a lot of pride," Hurricanes linebacker Denzel Perryman told ESPN.com. "Like the coaches tell us, like we say amongst ourselves, it's just the beginning of the season. It's game No. 5. We can't relax right here. So we've just got to keep doing what we're doing, which is just going out and executing and doing our job. We take a lot of pride in it though."
Miami has not played an FBS offense that currently ranks better than 70th. But the Hurricanes' one major win among their 4-0 start came when they forced five turnovers against then-No. 12 Florida. A unit that went through the growing pains of having 16 true freshmen play and six start at least one game in 2012 now finds itself in prime position to claim the early frontrunner status in the Coastal Division, as Miami has won its last four meetings with Georgia Tech.
But the roles are reversed this time around. Traditionally recognized for big playmakers at the skill positions -- and, in Georgia Tech's case, for the vaunted triple-option offense -- both schools have been modest offensively, ranking 38th (Miami) and 51st (Georgia Tech) nationally in yards per game.
The Yellow Jackets appeared to turn a corner defensively two weeks ago in their 28-20 home win over North Carolina, as they held the Tar Heels scoreless over the game's final 39-plus minutes. Despite a 17-10 home loss to intra-division rival Virginia Tech five days later, Georgia Tech held the Hokies to just a field goal over the game's final 41-plus minutes.
Roof said the UNC contest was a seeing-is-believing moment, as it allowed the new coordinator and his players to adjust to adversity on the fly and pull out a win.
"I think you gain some confidence and you gain some belief, and at the same time, correct the mistakes that got us into that position in the first place," Roof said. "But I was really proud of the effort."
Ironically enough, enhanced defensive play across the ACC may just be an unintended consequence of a conference that features seven senior starting quarterbacks from last year's 12-team version of the league.
"I just think it's the familiarity, in my opinion," Georgia Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu told ESPN.com. "A lot of us have been playing against each other for a while, like Virginia Tech and their quarterback, UNC and their quarterback. The guys that are senior quarterbacks, we kind of have a book on them, and you're kind of experienced, you play them a lot. There are a lot of senior quarterbacks in the conference this year. Tajh Boyd, another senior.
"So when I go into those games you kind of have almost a feel for them: You know how to rush the passer when you're rushing them. You know how to stay in your lane. Sometimes guys that can move and get out like Tajh Boyd, you know how they adjust to that. And basically just familiarity. For me, personally, I feel the same way for a lot of our players on our defense, that familiarity and experience with a lot of the senior offensive players in this league."
Ten different ACC defensive coordinators are in their first or second years with their schools. In some of those cases, such as Clemson's, Florida State's or Georgia Tech's, head coaches and personnel were already in place, and that has been evident through their defensive play this season. Other cases, such as Boston College's or North Carolina's, were part of wholesale staff changes. That, too, has been evident so far this season, with the Eagles and Tar Heels ranking 71st and 105th, respectively, in total defense.
Mark D'Onofrio, in his third season as Miami's defensive coordinator, is a seasoned veteran by ACC standards. While stressing that he cannot speak for everyone, he does see the impact of some of the new staffs and schemes starting to come along in the conference.
"Sometimes it just takes some of these programs where they have newer head coaches or newer coordinators, it just takes a few years sometimes to get your system going and get your people in," D'Onofrio told ESPN.com.
Whether better defenses are here to stay or simply current products of early scheduling will likely be answered deeper into conference play. The clearest picture may come Saturday, when Georgia Tech and Miami collide in a matchup that has averaged 51 total points per game over the Coastal Division hopefuls' last four meetings.
Roof will reserve judgment until the season ends, though he is happy to see the Yellow Jackets gain early recognition for their work on his side of the ball.
"I want our players to take pride at being great at something," Roof said. "I want them to take pride in how they work, pride in how they prepare and pride in defense at Georiga Tech. But I know this, all of it has to go together -- offense, defense, special teams. There are going to be weeks where we have to win 49-48, and I'm good with that. There are going to be weeks where we have to win 9-2, and I'm good with that, too. Bottom line is we have to do what we have to do to win football games. But at the same time, I want our kids to have pride playing defense at Georgia Tech."
16hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
2dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney