By Zac Ellis
When asked to reflect on Georgia Tech's spring practice, Ted Roof offered a handful of the usual answers. He has some hardworking kids, he said, and they're learning what it takes to win. The team has a long way to go, he continued, but the players are constantly striving to get there. And of course, Roof said, he's pleased with the overall attitude and effort from his roster.
Shortly into the conversation, however, the Yellow Jackets’ new defensive coordinator got around to his real point: “I know we haven’t played a game yet," Roof said, "but I’ve been around the block a time or two."
Roof means that literally, as the program's most important offseason addition is more than a just familiar face around campus. Roof is a piece of Georgia Tech history, having already enjoyed a successful stint on the Ramblin’ Wreck’s coaching staff after starring as a linebacker there three decades ago. His return is a homecoming of sorts -- he's a native of nearby Lawrenceville, Ga. -- but it’s also a chance for Roof to add to his legacy. He can bring new life to his alma mater's stumbling defense, an opportunity he's relishing in Atlanta.
One of the more respected defensive minds in college football, Roof came back to Georgia Tech in January after just spending one season as Bill O’Brien’s defensive coordinator at Penn State. He helped guide the Nittany Lions through the tumultuous aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the results were far better than expected. Despite heavy restrictions placed on the program -- NCAA sanctions against Penn State included massive scholarship reductions and a four-year bowl ban -- Roof and Penn State finished the 2012 season 8-4, good for second in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division.
It was an admirable finish in the thick of unmistakably difficult circumstances, and Roof’s defense was a major reason why the team succeeded: The Nittany Lions ranked second in the conference in scoring defense (19.1 points per game), first in sacks (34) and first in red-zone defense. Moreover, two Penn State players, linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, finished among the top six tacklers in the Big Ten.
In many ways, the chance to focus on football alone -- instead of singularly chasing bowls or championships -- proved rewarding for Roof. He didn't view the atmosphere at Penn State nearly as negatively as many outsiders did. “It was one of the most enjoyable years I’ve had in coaching," Roof said of his season in State College. "It took me back to all the reasons why I got into coaching: A bunch of guys who liked to work, liked to play and liked each other. It just refreshed me in the reasons of why I got into this business.”
It also provided Roof with a chance to renew his coaching relationship with O’Brien, whom Roof calls one of his better friends in the business. The two first worked together as Georgia Tech assistants under coach George O’Leary from 1998-2001, and O’Brien later handled offensive coordinator duties for two seasons at Duke (2005-06) while Roof was the Blue Devils’ head coach. It seemed natural, then, that when O’Brien began assembling his staff at Penn State, he brought in Roof to reunite the friends for a third time.
Upon taking the job, Roof had no illusions: The situation in State College was daunting. But Roof trusted O'Brien enough to join the program during tough times. "It didn’t come as a surprise that he’s done such a great job," Roof said of O'Brien. "That’s who he is. Nobody knew what was coming [from the NCAA] when he took the job, but he’s doing a fantastic job and will steer them through this."
Still, despite Penn State's steady progress, Roof knew he wanted to return to Georgia Tech when the opportunity arose. Last season, Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson made headlines by canning defensive coordinator Al Groh midway through the campaign, two days after a 47-31 loss at Clemson. The Jackets had surrendered 40 points or more in three straight losses for the first time in school history -- a stretch that included an embarrassing 49-28 home loss to Middle Tennessee State -- and ranked 90th in the country in total defense. When interim coordinator Charles Kelly was ultimately let go at season’s end, Roof was given a chance to return to his roots. He decided to accept the position just two days after O’Brien praised his Penn State staff in a press conference and expressed hope that he could keep the group together.
“Here’s what it was: I didn’t view it as a decision to leave Bill O’Brien,” Roof said of his move. “I viewed it as a decision to come back to Georgia Tech. I had a great job [at Penn State] with a great group of men and a fantastic head coach who happened to be a friend of mine. It was just an opportunity to come back home.
“This is the same job I had 15 years ago. I’ve gone full circle.”
Luring Roof back to Atlanta was a coup for Johnson, whose underwhelming defenses have undermined several prolific Tech offenses in recent years. "I've known Ted for a long time and I'm excited that he has decided to come back to Georgia Tech,” Johnson said when announcing the hire in January. “He's one of the most respected football coaches in the nation." For his part, Roof hopes to find stability in Atlanta; he’s been at five different schools since 2008, including stops at Auburn, where he crafted the 2010 BCS title-winning Tigers' defense, and Central Florida, where he served under O’Leary once again.
For all of his movement, however, this is worth noting: Roof's defenses have delivered at virtually every one of his stops. At Auburn, the Tigers’ ninth-ranked rushing defense helped limit Oregon to 19 points in the BCS title game -- 28 points below the Ducks’ season average. As Minnesota's defensive coordinator in 2008, Roof helped the Gophers improve from 1-11 to 7-6 thanks to vast improvements in the secondary. And prior to his arrival at Duke, the Blue Devils ranked 113th out of 115 FBS teams in rushing defense; they led the ACC in rushing defense during Roof’s first stint as defensive coordinator in 2002.
As the Yellow Jackets’ third coordinator since 2008, Roof is now tasked with solidifying a defense that hasn’t finished in the top 25 since that same campaign. The program capped the 2012 season by holding USC to seven points in a Sun Bowl victory, but the defense surrendered 40 points or more six times over the course of the year. Georgia Tech returns eight starters from that unit, and Roof spent the spring completely overhauling the scheme by implementing a 4-3 formation in place of Groh’s 3-4. “The techniques are different, especially for the defensive front,” Roof said. “But where I think we’ve grown is, we’ve got a package that’s really multiple.”
Unlike some coaches joining new teams, Roof prefers not to obsess over film from the previous year’s defense. Soon after being hired, he requested only a 10-play highlight tape of each of his returning players’ best moments from last season. “I want to know what they can do,” he said. “The rest doesn’t matter to me.” What he saw was a handful of key returnees – from cornerback Jemea Thomas to linebacker-turned-end Jeremiah Attaochu – who could thrive if integrated into the right system. And Tech players saw plenty of potential from Roof in the spring as well. "A lot of coaches are high energy, but I definitely sense his energy and he's a very personable guy at the same time," defensive lineman Euclid Cummings told PennLive.com during workouts. "He has a great balance. His first message was that we're a high-energy team and we set the pace for the entire team. And we finish strong."
Roof teaches from experience -- and not merely his 26 years coaching in the college ranks. He was a four-year letterwinner at Georgia Tech from 1982-85, serving as co-captain and a first-team all-conference selection during his senior year, when Tech topped Michigan State in the All-American Bowl. “When I was here, we had just joined the ACC,” Roof said. “Our out-of-conference schedule for three of the four years was Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia. So we were playing a pretty good SEC schedule along with an ACC schedule.”
To that end, Georgia Tech will face a difficult slate in 2013. The Yellow Jackets will meet Clemson, North Carolina and Syracuse – all top-20 total offenses in 2012 – in addition to Miami, which returns Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson, and Georgia, which brings back Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, among others. “This league is a microcosm of college football these days because there’s so much variation on offense,” Roof said. During the spring a reporter asked the coach about going against Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack in practice every day, and Roof asked the reporter to describe a conventional offense from the modern game. “They were like, uh …” Roof said. “I said, 'Exactly! There’s no one thing.'”
The challenges that comes with revitalizing his alma mater’s sputtering defense are evident, but in the end, there’s no place Roof would rather be. He's home -- hopefully with some stability -- and ready to leave his imprint on the Yellow Jackets' program once more. “There are a lot of reasons why I came back here,” Roof said. “I believe in Georgia Tech. It’s also about family; all my family is here. And I’m proud of Georgia Tech. I want my boys to know the guys I played with and the guys I went to school with. It was just the right decision at the right time.”Photo gallery: Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu among top returning ACC players in 2013