ATLANTA — With only nine days remaining before Georgia Tech's opening game, Ted Roof feels the time crunch as he tries to put the finishing touches on his 4-3 defense.
"Right now I feel we're in a race against the clock," Roof said Tuesday. "This clock is starting to tick faster the closer to the game we get."
Roof said he is looking for a "sense of urgency to get better real quick" from his players before the Aug. 31 opener against Elon.
Roof is in his first year as defensive coordinator, but the Yellow Jackets were introduced to the scheme late last season. Interim coordinator Charles Kelly began using the 4-3 after Al Groh, who employed a three-man front, was fired midway through the season.
The results late in 2012 were encouraging. A defense that had routinely allowed more than 30 points per game suddenly played stout in a 21-15 loss to Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and in a surprising 21-7 Sun Bowl victory over Southern California.
Jeremiah Attaochu, who had 10 sacks last year, is one of eight returning starters on the defense. He said the group wants to build on the strong finish to 2012.
"It gave us confidence, more than anything," Attaochu said. "Our last two games, we were really running defenses that were not too complicated and still we were able to be successful doing that because we had the players who could do it. We were keeping up with teams like Florida State and USC, teams with a lot of talent. Being able to compete with and beat teams like that, it's just so much confidence going into this year."
Attaochu, an outside linebacker at this time last year, is a defensive end under Roof.
"I've been real pleased with him," Roof said. "He's probably got the longest job description on our defense. He's one of the most experienced and obviously has proven he can play at this level and be really good playing at this level."
Six seniors were listed as starters on Georgia Tech's depth chart released this week, including Attaochu and Emmanuel Dieke at defensive end. Starting cornerbacks Jemea Thomas and Louis Young also are seniors.
There also is experience at linebacker with Quayshawn Nealy, a two-year starter, Jabari Hunt-Days, who had 84 tackles last year, and senior Brandon Watts.
The bad news is the returning players were part of one of the nation's worst defenses when Groh was fired. The unit was allowing 30.2 points per game and ranked 90th in total defense, allowing 431 yards per game.
It's easy to understand why coach Paul Johnson is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the defense. Johnson scoffed when asked about reports of a strong showing by the defense in Saturday's scrimmage at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"Yeah, I read that," Johnson said Tuesday. "I must have missed it."
Johnson, the architect of the Yellow Jackets' productive spread-option offense, has struggled to find a championship-caliber defense.
Georgia Tech finished only 7-7 last year, its third straight season with five or more losses.
Johnson is slow to give praise, but he said during practice this summer his defensive players "seem to be flying around and playing hard. That's a good thing."
Nealy said Roof has helped make it easy to play with confidence.
"He's made the defense relatively simple," Nealy said. "We're putting in a lot of things but they're all relatively the same inside of different packages. It allows you to go out there and play without thinking, to just react when the ball is snapped. Coach Roof has definitely simplified that and the transition has been not hard at all."
Nealy said he expects a more aggressive and "up-tempo" look on defense.
"We're having a lot of fun out there, even in practice, with a lot of hand-slapping and things like that," Nealy said. "I believe we're going to have a great season and it's going to carry over."