ATLANTA — Georgia Tech is earning respect for more than its strong running game.
Suddenly the Yellow Jackets' defense is on the rise.
Just ask Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst, who said he's worried about more than Georgia Tech's spread-option offense as he prepares for Saturday's game against the Yellow Jackets. Chryst said the Yellow Jackets' defense, which already has two shutouts for the first time in 28 years, also deserves respect.
"They're explosive and very good on offense and deserve all of the accolades they get, but defensively, I think they're playing really well and will be one of the better defenses we face," Chryst said.
Georgia Tech (5-3, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) hasn't received many similar compliments about its defense in recent years.
In October of 2012, coach Paul Johnson fired defensive coordinator Al Groh when the Yellow Jackets had one of the nation's worst defenses. Georgia Tech was allowing 30.2 points per game and ranked 90th in the nation with its average of 431 yards allowed per game.
One year later, the unit has enjoyed an upswing under first-year coordinator Ted Roof.
Boosted by the shutouts of Elon and Syracuse, Georgia Tech ranks 21st in the nation with its average of 19.9 points allowed. The Yellow Jackets rank third in the ACC and 17th in the nation in total defense, allowing 342.2 yards per game — their best average since 2009.
It has been a much-needed development, especially coming one year after it seemed the Yellow Jackets could only win high-scoring shootouts.
"Certainly, I think at this point we've played better defensively than we did a year ago, there's no question about that," Johnson said Tuesday. "I think the defensive staff has done a good job. We also have six or seven seniors over there that have played a lot of football."
In 2012, Georgia Tech gave up more than 40 points in six games. This year, Georgia Tech's most notable defensive lapses came in back-to-back road losses to Miami (45-30) and BYU (38-20). No other team has scored 30 points against Georgia Tech.
Roof was a Georgia Tech team captain in 1985, the last year the defense recorded two shutouts.
Johnson said such seniors as defensive ends Jeremiah Attaochu and Emmanuel Dieke and safety Jemea Thomas have led the defensive upswing.
Thomas has played safety, cornerback and nickel back. He was named the ACC co-defensive back of the week after he set a career high with 15 tackles in last week's 35-25 win at Virginia. His 12 unassisted stops were the high total for a Georgia Tech player since 2003.
The defense helped Georgia Tech survive five turnovers and nine penalties against Virginia.
"The bottom line is the points," Johnson said. "It's all about how many points you give up. Considering that we turned the ball over five times and gave them all sorts of chances with penalties, we were pleased that we only gave up as many points as we did. There are things that we need to do better, but if you're not giving up big plays you usually have a chance."
Thomas leads the Yellow Jackets with 52 tackles.
Johnson said Thomas is "just a really good football player" who could play running back and even served as scout team quarterback one week earlier in his career.
"He just loves to play," Johnson said. "He gives the defense flexibility because he can move around. He makes a lot of plays. ... You would love to have a bunch of Jemea Thomases running around."
Linebacker Brandon Watts is second with 41 stops. Attaochu has a team-leading 4 sacks, including two against Virginia. Senior cornerback Louis Young and junior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy share the team lead with two interceptions.
"There have been a lot of guys who have made plays at different times," Johnson said. "It's a work in progress and they've gotten better than a year ago, no question."
Chryst said the secondary led by Thomas is a good complement for the defensive front.
"They're really good," Chryst said. "Up front, they're active and they play fast. They're explosive, they'll hit you and their secondary plays with confidence. Part of that is because they have some guys up front that can put some heat on you fast."