Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh works with his unit during a run-stop drill during Tuesday's practice.
ATLANTA -- Al Groh wasn't surprised his Georgia Tech defense needed a year to learn his 3-4 scheme.
That was Groh's prediction last summer when, entering his first season as Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator -- and the Yellow Jackets' first year in his 3-4 scheme -- when he candidly said, "Every time we have done this installation, we do a lot better the second year than the first."
The 2010 defense struggled at times as Georgia Tech finished 6-7.
Now, as he's preparing for his second season, Groh says he is encouraged that returning players are more comfortable in the scheme. Another plus? He says he has more depth and versatility as he looks for improvement in 2011.
Each of Groh's three starting defensive linemen are back: ends Izaan Cross and Jason Peters and tackle Logan Walls. There is more experience at linebacker, where senior Steven Sylvester and hard-hitting junior Julian Burnett are returning starters.
Finally, Groh's players are more comfortable in his 3-4.
"We do see signs of this being the second time through," he said this week at practice. "It's a process to really be able to execute at a player's position. The first part of that process is just to be comfortable with what that job is. Once they learn their assignments, then the next stage is to learn how to really do their job. Last year, so many players were just trying to figure out what their job was."
Groh said returning players "have a much better handle on how to do their job."
Coach Paul Johnson fired defensive coordinator Dave Wommack after the 2009 ACC Championship season because Johnson wasn't satisfied with the 24.8 points allowed by the team.
The average was slightly worse under Groh. Georgia Tech ranked 57th in the nation with its average of 25.23 points allowed.
Georgia Tech struggled to make key stops and was weak at times against the run, ranking only 70th in the nation with its average of 170 yards allowed per game on the ground.
Johnson has been clear that he expects the downward trend on defense to end this season.
"Hopefully they'll be better," Johnson said. "I think they will. I have every reason to think they'll be better than a year ago, and if we're going to be better, they'll have to be. We need them to play better than they played a year ago."
Johnson said the defense has fared well against the offense in some practices, but this past Tuesday at practice was not one of those days.
"It wasn't very good," Johnson said. "The offense knocked the fool out of the defense at the end (Tuesday)."
Burnett said it will be easier to play faster when the players have a more complete understanding of their roles.
"The fact that we know what we're doing now, it just gives us a lot of confidence," Burnett said. "One of the big things at linebacker, you don't want to do too much thinking. It has to be a natural thing."
The defense did not deserve all the blame for Georgia Tech's poor finish last year, but Burnett said the program's first losing season since 1996 provided ample motivation for the offseason.
"We do have something to prove," Burnett said. "Last year's record wasn't as good as we hoped. That's something that's going to motivate us this year."
Groh, 67, was 59-53 in nine years as Virginia's coach and was fired after a 3-9 record in 2009. He was 26-40 as Wake Forest's coach in the 1980s and was 9-7 as the New York Jets' coach in 2000.
Groh also was an NFL assistant under Bill Parcells with the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
Groh's first college job was as a plebe assistant at Army in 1968. Now, 43 years later, he said he still enjoys the challenge of teaching.
"Oh, for sure. It's most definitely fun to work with the players on a daily basis and to see their advancement and improvement," he said. "I understand every phase of it. It's teaching, it's progress, it's competition. There's competition every day. The competition, that's what puts the energy in the game and that's what puts the spark in it for all of us."
NOTES: Georgia Tech's final day of two-a-day drills was Wednesday. The preseason camp ends Saturday, when the focus shifts to the team's Sept. 1 opener against Western Carolina. ... Johnson announced Tuesday he awarded scholarships to four walk-ons: A-back Robert Godhigh, linebacker Robert Hogan, offensive lineman Tyler Kidney and linebacker Matt Serpico.