ATLANTA – New Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson shrugs off the skepticism about whether his option offense can work in a major conference.
"We've been successful everywhere we've coached with it," said Johnson, who has been coach at Navy and Division I-AA Georgia Southern. "We play the same teams here we played at Navy, or a lot of them. If we don't succeed, I don't think that will be the reason."
History supports Johnson's thesis in more than one respect. His record speaks for itself. He has won nearly three-quarters of his games during an 11-year head-coaching career that includes two I-AA national championships at Georgia Southern. Johnson headed to Georgia Tech in December after posting a 45-29 record at Navy, which had gone 1-20 in the two seasons before his arrival.
And as much as Johnson's offense might look out of place in today's version of big-time college football, it wasn't that long ago that teams frequently won championships without throwing the ball 20 times a game. Nebraska was winning titles with an option attack as recently as 1994, '95 and '97. So why aren't teams running the option anymore?
"I guess because it's a little old-school type of football," Georgia Tech sophomore running back Jonathan Dwyer said. "Everyone's into the spread offense, the new offense of the millennium. It's different from everyone else, but we have a lot of athletes and a lot of speed and I think it will work for us."
Georgia Tech might be the only school from one of the so-called "Big Six" conferences running this type of offense, but at least one interested observer has no doubt the Yellow Jackets will have success with it.
Georgia coach Mark Richt's perfect record against the Yellow Jackets helps explain why former Tech coach Chan Gailey was fired even after delivering six consecutive winning seasons. Richt offered two reasons Johnson's system at Navy should work in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"One, it's proven," Richt said. "Two, the coach is proven, too. He's done nothing but win everywhere he's been."
CAN HISTORY REPEAT?
Georgia Tech can only hope new coach Paul Johnson repeats the success he enjoyed at Navy. Here's a look at Navy's overall record and its performance against archrival Army during Johnson's tenure and before his arrival. Georgia Tech is trying to end a seven-game losing streak to archrival Georgia.
Note: *--Navy finished 8-5 last season. Johnson didn't coach the Midshipmen in their 35-32 Poinsettia Bowl loss to Utah because he already had accepted the job at Georgia Tech.
It could take some time for him to start winning at Georgia Tech, which doesn't have a quarterback who has started a college game. The Yellow Jackets also must find new runners to replace Tashard Choice, who has moved on to the NFL after two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
The changes around here aren't limited to offense. Georgia Tech won't blitz nearly as often now that new coordinator Dave Wommack has replaced Jon Tenuta, whose feast-or-famine system helped the Yellow Jackets lead the nation in sacks last season while also ranking ninth out of 12 ACC teams in pass efficiency defense.
With a roster full of newcomers learning a new playbook, it's no wonder the first couple of practices were ragged.
"They're grasping (it) better but, yeah, they're confused," Johnson said after Georgia Tech's second workout of the spring. "You're throwing a whole lot of things at them really fast."
The Yellow Jackets don't have any experienced quarterbacks because Taylor Bennett – a classic dropback quarterback who might not have fit Johnson's system – transferred after starting all 13 games last season. Wide receiver D.J. Donley and tight end Colin Peek announced plans to transfer after Johnson's arrival. Wide receiver James Johnson left the team after the first week of spring practice, though he said his decision came because his heart wasn't in the game anymore and that he had no problems with the coaching change or the new offense.
It would be easy to understand why people would want to blame the new scheme for the defections. Navy threw the ball only 11.1 times per game during Johnson's six-year tenure. In four of the past five seasons, Navy led the nation in rushing offense. In each of the past two seasons, the Midshipmen ranked last in Division I-A in passing offense.
By contrast, every team in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Big East averaged at least 20 passes per game last season, and West Virginia (20.4), Arkansas (24.1) and Illinois (24.8) were the only "Big Six" teams that threw the ball less than 25 times per game.
"I was concerned I wasn't going to get the ball much," sophomore wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said, "but once I talked to (Johnson), I felt OK about it. Now I feel much better about it. He just told me to stay in and see what he does."
One of the first things Johnson must do is decide on a quarterback. Sophomore Josh Nesbitt certainly looks like an ideal candidate to run an option attack after averaging 6.4 yards per carry as a backup last year. Navy's starting quarterbacks rushed for an average of 836 yards and 12.7 touchdowns during the Johnson era. Nesbitt ran for 1,745 yards and 30 touchdowns while also throwing for 5,089 yards and 63 scores in his final two seasons at Greensboro (Ga.) Greene County High School.
Nesbitt also is a shotgun quarterback who hasn't lined up directly under center since 10th grade, which could cause him to have some growing pains in Johnson's offense. "It's definitely hard," Nesbitt said. "It takes time to get comfortable with it."
Nesbitt's unfamiliarity at working under center could benefit fifth-year senior Calvin Booker, an Auburn transfer who was 11 of 21 for 167 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception last season. Booker doesn't possess Nesbitt's speed or upside, but his experience might make him less of a risk.
CHANGE OF STRATEGY
The hiring of Paul Johnson means Georgia Tech probably will run the ball more than it did last season. Johnson operated an option attack at Navy that helped the Midshipmen regularly rank among the NCAA leaders in rushing. Here's a look at where Georgia Tech and Navy ranked in rushing and passing offense during Johnson's six-year tenure at Navy. The average yards per game are in parentheses.
"It's going to be a learning curve," Johnson said. "Everybody talks about Josh Nesbitt. … I don't care what offense you're running, there's a learning curve. Calvin's been around a little longer, so he's got that going for him. But when you come in with something new, everyone starts on the same page."
That's true at every position – not just quarterback.
Johnson doesn't have an official depth chart and has made just about every starting spot up for grabs, which has increased the competitive spirit around the practice field. Booker said the new coach turned up the intensity of the offseason workouts by about "100 notches."
"They really tried to see if you had heart, to see if you'd quit or not," Thomas said. "We had like seven drills back-to-back-to-back, then a four-minute break. I can't compare it to anything."
Comparing this offense to any other in the nation could prove equally challenging. Instead of having fullbacks and tailbacks lining up in the backfield, Georgia Tech has "A" backs and "B" backs. The "B" back positions himself directly behind the quarterback. Two "A" backs flank him and can receive option pitches or run pass patterns.
This scheme could make a star out of Dwyer, the likely starter at the "B-back" position. Johnson tried recruiting him to Navy, but Dwyer wasn't interested in going to a military school. As fate would have it, Dwyer still will get the chance to play in this run-oriented system after rushing for nine touchdowns as a true freshman last season.
"Everyone's going to have to look out for everybody," Dwyer said. "The ball's going to be moving all over the place."
How often will the ball be moving through the air? Nobody knows for sure, even though Booker suspects the Yellow Jackets will be passing more than Navy did the last six years.
"I think we will, but that's up to Coach Johnson," Booker said. "I don't care if I only threw about twice a game. If we're winning games, that's all that matters. To me, if we option the ball down the field or throw the ball down the field, as long as we're scoring points and winning, that's what matters."