ATLANTA -- Standing in the lobby of Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, Jeremiah Attaochu scratched his head and laughed. A reporter had asked the Yellow Jackets senior defensive end to guess the number of sacks he’d get in his team’s game against Ole Miss in Monday’s Music City Bowl. One of Attaochu’s biggest strengths is his ability to pressure the quarterback; he’s tied for the most sacks (31.0) in Tech history.
Still, despite being the active FBS leader in the category, the 6-foot-3, 242-pounder refused to make any sort of statistical forecast.
“I don’t ever really have a number,” Attaochu said. “My thing is just keep grinding and keep playing, and I know I’m going to get [sacks]. I don’t really think about numbers. I mean, just one would be nice.”
Attaochu has shown a special knack for wreaking havoc in the backfield during his senior season. He is tied for third nationally with 12 sacks after moving from linebacker to end to fit new defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s 4-3 scheme. In the Yellow Jackets’ 41-34 double-overtime loss to rival Georgia on Nov. 30, Attaochu sacked Bulldogs quarterback Hutson Mason four times, the third-largest single-game total in school history. Ten of Attaochu’s 12 sacks came in the season’s final five games.
The senior credits his surge to his teammates, who helped keep Georgia Tech’s campaign from derailing earlier this fall. After the Yellow Jackets opened 3-0, they dropped three straight to Virginia Tech, Miami and BYU, respectively. Attaochu had only two sacks through the first six games -- a noticeable dip from his 10-sack junior season in 2012 -- and his decision to bypass the NFL draft to return for his senior year seemed questionable.
“He just drew so much attention the first couple of games,” Georgia Tech defensive line coach Mike Pelton said. “But sacks come in bunches, and I told him that eventually he was going to get it. Staying with it long enough, he understood what it took.”
Attaochu took it upon himself to make sure he closed his senior season the right way. Having spent much of his prep career at Archbishop Carroll High in Washington, D.C., as a defensive end, he reverted to his old habits in order to thrive while playing with his hand in the dirt. According to Pelton, that task wasn’t terribly difficult for a player with Attaochu’s skill set. “We could stand him up and put him at safety, and he’d probably get back there and be a player,” Pelton said.
Said Attaochu of his late-season success: “It was definitely a unit thing. I was coming off the ball the same way I was coming off at the beginning of the season. It was just our unit, when everybody started clicking, I started making more plays.”
He earned first-team All-ACC and third-team All-America honors. His 31 sacks are more than former ACC standouts Julius Peppers (30.5) and Mario Williams (25.5) had during their distinguished careers. Pelton likens Attaochu to a pair of defensive ends in the NFL. The coach says Attaochu’s versatility makes him a mix of DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora, two players whom Pelton coached while he was an assistant at Troy from 2001 to '06.
“He can stand up and rush like Ware did, or he can get out and play the run like Osi,” Pelton said. “[Attaochu] fits right in there with those guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went to the NFL and had a great career.”
Attaochu helped Roof replace two starters on the defensive line in the coordinator’s first season back with the Yellow Jackets. Roof spent much of the year marveling at the senior’s development.
“If you look at the last half of his season, I’m really proud of him with how much he’s improved,” Roof said. “With seniors a lot of times, you may not see that drastic improvement. But he’s had drastic improvement. I think that he’s had an outstanding year.”
Ending the season on a high note will be Attaochu’s final test. Georgia Tech is set to face a Rebels offense that ranks 24th nationally in passing behind quarterback Bo Wallace and wide receivers Laquon Treadwell and Donte Moncrief. Ole Miss averages 285.6 yards per game through the air, and though the Yellow Jackets' pass defense is one of the worst in the ACC, Attaochu could give Wallace plenty of trouble.
A stellar outing against an SEC foe could be the perfect swan song for Attaochu, and he’s focused on two things: Getting to the quarterback and getting the win.
“These days, it’s football on any given Saturday,” Attaochu said. “The talent is pretty much spread out even. The guy I’m going up against, I might be better than him every week, regardless of conference. I don’t really think about that.
“I’m just trying to finish things out strong and enjoy every minute of it.” Bowl schedule: Matchups, dates and coverage for every 2013-14 game pairing