It's always a good bet that Georgia Tech will put up outlandish rushing statistics, but if the Yellow Jackets are going to return to relevance, their defense must stop giving up similarly absurd numbers beginning Saturday against Elon.
The Phoenix offer the first chance for new defensive coordinator Ted Roof — a linebacker in Georgia Tech's "Black Watch" defense in the mid-1980s — to prove that the Yellow Jackets can turn back the clock.
Georgia Tech finished in the top four in the nation in rushing in each of head coach Paul Johnson's five seasons at the school, but the defense has slipped precipitously since the Yellow Jackets went 9-4 and 11-3 in 2008 and '09. They are 21-19 since.
Johnson fired defensive coordinator Al Groh at midseason last year after the Yellow Jackets lost consecutive games to Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson while allowing averages of 573 yards and 46 points.
Elon, an FCS program coming off a 3-9 season, does not qualify as a stiff test, but Groh's defensive schemes did. The Yellow Jackets say Roof has made their jobs easier.
"It's simpler: just line up and play ball," said senior defensive end Euclid Cummings. "When you think, that slows you down as a defensive player."
Georgia Tech is still going to run the ball plenty even with a new starting quarterback. Sophomore Vad Lee passed for 596 yards last season, and accounted for 544 yards on the ground as the Yellow Jackets averaged 311.2 rushing yards, No. 4 in the nation.
Defense, however, is where Georgia Tech the Yellow Jackets must improve. Senior end Jeremiah Attaochu and cornerbacks Louis Young and Jemea Thomas are chief among eight returning starters.
"It's a whole lot simpler," outside linebacker Brandon Watts said of the new system. "I think we're going to be a whole lot better."
Roof, who played at Tech from 1982-'85 and was defensive coordinator from '99-'01, doesn't want to hear it. He wants to see it. "I'm glad they feel that, and they'll have a chance to prove that," he said. "It'll mean a whole lot more if they're saying it after Saturday."
Five things to watch when Georgia Tech faces Elon:
THE BATTERING RAMS: Georgia Tech's fullbacks, whom the Yellow Jackets refer to as 'B-backs,' will surely be busy. Senior starter David Sims (612 yards in '12) is healthier than he's been since 2011, and last year's leading rusher, Zach Laskey (697, including just 1 negative yard all season), will play plenty. Sophomore Broderick Snoddy is 25-30 pounders lighter than Sims and Laskey, but brings big speed. He set the Georgia Tech record for the 60-meter dash (6.75 seconds) last winter during the indoor track season.
ELON'S BIG BOYS: The Phoenix will be led defensively by junior middle linebacker Jonathan Spain (6-feet-2, 242 pounds). He had 120 tackles last season. Junior defensive tackle Dustin Ruff (5-10, 302) is a space eater. End Jordan Jones will make his 27th career start, and the Phoenix have nine starters back on defense.
NEW FACES IN CONTROL: Georgia Tech fans have been eagerly awaiting QB Vad Lee's turn on center stage since he was recruited out of Durham, N.C. He is more dynamic in the passing game than predecessor Tevin Washington, yet coach Paul Johnson said that redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Thomas has also earned playing time. Thomas is slight (5-11, 179), but has crazy quickness as a runner. Elon junior Mike Quinn will make his first start at quarterback. He's passed for 147 yards in 12 career games (24-for-35). Elon has just four returning starters on offense.
GREENHORNS AT WR: With Georgia Tech sophomore Darren Waller suspended for disciplinary reasons, the Yellow Jackets do not have a wideout who has caught a pass at the collegiate level. The likely starters are redshirt freshman Michael Summers and junior Corey Dennis - a converted safety. Junior DeAndre Smelter, who is back to football after playing three seasons of baseball at Georgia Tech, had an outstanding summer before being injured about 10 days ago. He's expected to play. He might start.
BIG STEP UP: This will be just the sixth game in Elon history against an FBS program (0-5). The Phoenix do have a win over a current ACC member: they beat Miami 21-18 in 1928, as Georgia Tech was on the way to the second of its four national titles.