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Ga. Tech Brings Wrecking Crew

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

KaMichael Hall found out what playing for Jon Tenuta is like during his freshman season. Hall, now a senior outside linebacker at Georgia Tech, asked his defensive coordinator a question while Tenuta explained a certain coverage.

The coach snapped, as he is wont to do when freshmen ask questions at the wrong time. He lit into Hall, which the freshman didn't understand until the next time Tenuta explained the coverage. He had no questions.

"Probably as a freshman, you hate" playing for Tenuta, Hall said. "As you grow older and you understand what's going on, you love it."

The rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and some of the country's best teams, are discovering what playing against Tenuta is like, and finding the experience not nearly as enjoyable. Using Tenuta's scheme, a defense that confounds offenses with a complex system of zone blitzes and overwhelms them with lightning-quick pass rushers, Georgia Tech has become a favorite in the ACC while terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.

"I'm still sore," Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon said on Wednesday, four days after the then-No. 11 Hokies lost, 38-27, to Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets' defense held Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, then a Heisman Trophy favorite, to 246 yards passing while battering him like a speed bag in a 14-10, season-opening loss Sept. 2.

The key?

"We're doing what Coach Tenuta is telling us to do," Hall said. "That's about it."

By doing so, No. 18 Georgia Tech has assumed control of the ACC's Coastal Division just two games into the conference schedule. It is the only team in the division without a conference loss, and its biggest challenger was Virginia Tech, against which it now holds an important tiebreaker. Unless Miami turns its season around, Georgia Tech likely will play in Jacksonville, Fla., for the ACC championship on Dec. 2.

Aside from the play of standout wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the Yellow Jackets largely can thank Tenuta's scheme, one so complex that Georgia Tech's defensive playbook is nearly as thick as its offensive counterpart. The abridged version of the text: "Blitz."

Virginia Tech tackle Brandon Frye guessed the Yellow Jackets run "at least a dozen" different blitz packages. Hall chuckled at the estimate.

"They don't need to guess, because you're wasting your time," Hall said. "I can't even tell you. There's a lot."

When Tenuta arrived at Georgia Tech from North Carolina in 2002, he and Coach Chan Gailey scoured their defensive personnel and decided it was fast but small. To attack offenses, they would have to rely on that speed and shape the scheme to it.

Tenuta runs his blitzes from every angle and every position, dropping his sleek defensive linemen into coverage to fill the void of rushing linebackers or defensive backs. The players disguise their plays, so the offense can't tell who is blitzing or where it's coming from, leading to free runs at the quarterback.

"They come from everywhere," Virginia Tech center Danny McGrath said.

Even when offenses figure out where the rush is coming from, they still may not stop it. Gailey said his front seven this season are the best he has had since he has been at Georgia Tech, highlighted by Hall and middle linebacker Philip Wheeler, stout run defenders who specialize in attacking quarterbacks.

"They're like cats," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "You can't knock them off their feet. If you do, they bounce right up and get in the tackle. Nobody ever seems to get a clean hit on them."

Wheeler is Georgia Tech's wild card, a player Tenuta may line up anywhere before unleashing him on a blitz. Wheeler is fun-loving off the field -- "a big kid," Hall called him. When on it, he's deathly serious. He rarely speaks while he plays, and he never takes off his helmet on the sideline. Gailey remembers practices on 100-degree days when Wheeler would be standing to the side, chin strap still buckled.

Wheeler is second in the ACC in sacks with four and is tied for ninth in the nation in tackles for a loss. But the Yellow Jackets voted Hall their best defensive player for the Virginia Tech game, proving how dangerous a tandem they are. Hall, who calls the defenses for Georgia Tech, made 11 tackles and forced a fumble against the Hokies.

The secondary needs seasoning, Gailey said, but otherwise it's a difficult defense to prepare for, and even more difficult to play.

For that, Georgia Tech can thank Tenuta. While Hall no longer endures tongue-lashings from his coach, he knows it helped shape the team.

"He's very disciplined, very no-nonsense," Hall said. "I know a lot of the guys respect that. There are no other defensive coaches like him that I know."

Terrapins Note: Maryland linebacker Rick Costa, along with two other reserves, did not practice yesterday. Defensive lineman Omarr Savage and cornerback Anthony Wiseman did not practice as well. Friedgen refused to comment on their status for tomorrow's game. Costa, a 6-foot, 246-pound sophomore, has been a key part of the Terrapins' linebacker rotation. He has seven tackles and a fumble recovery.

Staff writer Marc Carig contributed to this report.

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