Groh at home in Atlanta

Al Groh didn’t have a great 2009. As the head coach at Virginia, he opened the season with a stunning home loss to William & Mary, marking the Cavaliers’ first defeat to an FCS (formerly I-AA) school since 1986, and he ended it by losing to rival Virginia Tech for the sixth straight season — not exactly the recipe for getting another season to iron things out in Charlottesville.

After taking Virginia to bowl games in five of his first seven seasons, the Cavaliers fell on hard times in ‘08 and ‘09, as Groh compiled a record of 8-16 and had fans calling for his ouster seemingly every week.

But the former head coach of the New York Jets could be in line for a big 2010. As the new defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, Groh will inherit a defense that is ready to complement a prolific offense and try to lead the Yellow Jackets back to a BCS bowl game as ACC champions.

Georgia Tech certainly didn’t play terribly on defense in ‘09, but head coach Paul Johnson was displeased enough to dismiss Dave Wommack and bring Groh into the fold. And despite losing the best defensive player in the conference — defensive end Derrick Morgan — as well as safety Morgan Burnett, the Jackets are excited about Groh’s arrival and the new-look defensive unit.

The Yellow Jackets will be one of 14 schools in the fall running the 3-4, with another five teams employing the 3-3-5 scheme. The prevailing thought is that the 3-4 can create more confusion for opposing offenses — especially those running the spread — much like the more wide-open offenses across the country have been posing problems for traditional 4-3 units.

Groh began to learn the nuances of the 3-4 as a defensive assistant to Bill Belichick under Bill Parcells when the two were winning a Super Bowl together with the New York Giants in 1990. He became coordinator in 1991 when Belichick left to coach the Browns in Cleveland. His particular expertise working with linebackers led Belichick to bring him aboard as an assistant with the Browns in ’92 before being reunited with Parcells in New England from ‘93 to ‘96 as the defensive coordinator of the Patriots and as linebackers coach from ‘97 through ’99 with the Jets.

The 3-4 will allow the Yellow Jackets more flexibility on defense, especially against offenses that will spread out its personnel in a variety of ways across the field. The scheme allows the linebackers to disguise themselves a little better, making the quarterback question which one may be coming on a blitz and try to deduce the right coverage.

The changes on defense seemed to elevate the play of Brad Jefferson, Anthony Egbuniwe and Anthony Barnes during the team’s spring season. Jefferson will bring toughness to the inside linebacker spot, and he won’t have to cover as much ground as a traditional middle linebacker in a more conventional scheme. Egbuniwe, who looked small when playing defensive end last year, will move to outside linebacker and be joined by Barnes, who never looked comfortable at defensive end or outside linebacker under Wommack. Groh will walk up both players to the line quite often, giving the appearance of a five-man front but still allowing the outside ‘backers to drop into coverage. Both are athletic and versatile and are poised for big years.

Losing a playmaking safety like Burnett hurts, but the Yellow Jackets have experienced talent in the secondary that should be able to compensate for the loss. Junior Jerrard Tarrant will likely step in for Burnett, with seniors Mario Edwards and Dominique Reese, along with junior Rashaad Reid, filling out a reshuffled secondary. Tarrant showed his playmaking skills last season both in the secondary and on special teams. If the secondary could improve its tackling and allow fewer big plays — particularly on third downs — this could be the strength of the Yellow Jackets defense.

Overall, Groh will work with a unit that has added strong talent through the last two recruiting classes. Not only were three four-star recruits added from this season’s class, but the Jackets redshirted four defensive linemen from last year’s class, so depth on the line will not be a problem even though fewer linemen will now be needed with the shift to the 3-4. Losing commitments this offseason, however, was a concern when recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Giff Smith departed to the NFL. But two Washington, D.C.-area players — cornerback Louis Young and linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu — were added once Groh was on board.

Not only will opponents now have to prepare for Paul Johnson's unique spread-option offense, they'll also have to prepare for Al Groh's unique 3-4 defense, or whatever variations of his scheme and philosophy he tailors to suit the personnel in Atlanta.

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