Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
ATLANTA – Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt's childhood thoughts of running an option attack vanished about the same time most major-college programs abandoned that scheme.
"I used to see Eric Crouch run the option, and I was thinking, 'That could be me one day,' " Nesbitt said in reference to the 2001 Heisman winner from Nebraska. "But after him, I couldn't see myself running the option."
He changed his outlook by necessity when Georgia Tech hired coach Paul Johnson from Navy. One year later, Nesbitt has a realistic chance of maturing into college football's best option quarterback since Crouch.
"I think I'm a perfect fit for it," said Nesbitt, who signed with Tech when Chan Gailey was coach. "Every time I go out and work, I get better at everything I do and just strive to be the best. That's what I'm trying to do right now – to be the best quarterback who ever ran this option."
Nesbitt didn't always see himself as an ideal option quarterback. He spent his entire career working out of the shotgun. Nesbitt threw for 2,256 yards and ran for 493 yards as a senior at Greensboro (Ga.) Greene County.
Nesbitt considered himself a passing quarterback. It's a good thing he felt that way, since no college programs in any of the so-called "Big Six" conferences were running the option at the time.
"I would say that [Crouch] was the last time I'd seen anyone run the option, aside from looking at West Virginia and their spread option," Nesbitt said. "I never thought about being in it. I thought about being the Donovan McNabb type, a drop-back quarterback who could run when he has to."
Nesbitt admitted he struggled at times to adapt to an unfamiliar offense last season, but you wouldn't have known it from the way he directed Georgia Tech's rushing attack. The Yellow Jackets ranked fourth in the nation with 273.2 rushing yards per game, thanks in large part to Nesbitt's decision-making. He rushed for 693 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing two full games and most of a third with hamstring and ankle injuries.
Nesbitt helped the Yellow Jackets go 9-4 and end a seven-year losing streak to Georgia in a season that also featured victories over traditional ACC heavyweights Florida State and Miami. Tech should enter the fall in the national rankings and looms as the main challenger to two-time defending league champ Virginia Tech.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson has said he wants Josh Nesbitt to set a goal of throwing for 2,000 yards and rushing for 1,000 yards this season. Only six quarterbacks in college football history have accomplished that feat – but they all did it this decade.
Nesbitt performed so well as a first-year starter that Johnson has given him an ambitious target for the 2009 season: 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards. Only six quarterbacks have reached those totals in NCAA history.
"I think that would be a good goal for him to have," Johnson said. "If he stays healthy, he certainly can accomplish that."
Nesbitt's passing statistics suggest otherwise. He connected on just 43.9 percent of his passes last season, with five interceptions and two touchdowns. A lack of viable targets didn't help matters, as Demaryius Thomas finished the season with 39 of Georgia Tech's 74 receptions.
Nesbitt's lack of accuracy is somewhat surprising because he passed so effectively in high school. He threw 32 touchdown passes with only four interceptions and completed 60 percent of his attempts as a high school senior.
"Personally, I like passing the ball," Nesbitt said. "In high school, I thought about passing before I ran. I only ran because I had to. But now it's all about the team."
Of course, it's tough to establish much of a rhythm as a passer when your team is running the ball almost 80 percent of the time, but Nesbitt knows he must do better. He considers a completion rate of between 60 and 65 percent a realistic goal.
Johnson noted that Nesbitt's inaccuracy wasn't the only aspect hindering Tech's passing attack last season.
"Josh has some fundamentals he's got to work on, but it's also a group effort," Johnson said. "We have to catch the ball better. We have to protect better. Our protection wasn't very good last year. With the nature of what we do, he probably won't complete 70 percent of his throws. But if he can get in the high 50s, he can be very successful and have a tremendous efficiency rating, which is what we look at more than completion percentage."
If Nesbitt actually completes 60 percent of his passes, it would provide a major boost to an offense that already may be tougher to prepare for than any attack in the country.
The Yellow Jackets gained 372.5 yards per game to lead the ACC in total offense. They dismissed the notion that the option attack was a ball-control offense by scoring eight touchdowns from at least 50 yards out. Louisiana-Lafayette was the only team with more touchdown plays of 50-plus yards last season.
Georgia Tech's success shattered the conventional wisdom that the option attack can't succeed in a major conference. The new skepticism surrounds whether the Yellow Jackets can match their 2008 production now that opponents have more experience against the option.
Here's a look at some other quarterbacks who, like Josh Nesbitt, need to improve their completion percentage this season to have their offense be as productive as it can be. The quarterbacks are ranked by yardage.
Nesbitt poked a hole in that theory by pointing out that Tech also should benefit from having worked out the kinks in its option attack over the past year. Now that they know the offense better, players can rely on instinct instead of worrying if they're making the right decision on every play.
"Last year we had too much thinking going on," Nesbitt said. "This year everybody's got a year under their belt, and we can just go out and play."
Nesbitt directs an offense that returns Thomas and its six top rushers from last year, including 2008 ACC rushing leader Jonathan Dwyer. The Yellow Jackets also return all five offensive linemen who started the last five games of the 2008 season.
Complacency shouldn't be a problem. Nesbitt and Co. learned their lesson last season when they followed up their upset over Georgia with a 38-3 loss to LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
"You have to go out and play every game like it's your last," Nesbitt said. "I think we were so satisfied with beating Georgia that we didn't worry about winning the bowl game. We just worried about beating Georgia and getting to a bowl game.
"This year it's a whole new mindset. There are bigger goals. Everybody's working harder. Since I've been here, this is the hardest I've seen the whole team ever work."
Tech's chances of reaching those goals depend on Nesbitt's progress. The Yellow Jackets can't win the ACC title if Nesbitt fails to improve his accuracy.
Nesbitt's track record indicates he will improve that aspect of his game this fall. Nesbitt already has proved he's a fast learner with his remarkably smooth transition from shotgun quarterback to option engineer.
"You have to remember last year was the first year Josh really played," Johnson said. "He got put in for a series or two the year before, but they put him in the 'gun' and snapped the ball to him and more often than not he just ran with it. … He'll get better with experience. Taking a snap from center was a big deal for him. He'd never done that. It was like he was starting over."
The guy who once tucked away any thoughts of running an option attack has found a home in Johnson's system. That much is apparent when Nesbitt describes the type of play that gives him the biggest thrill.
He could mention going on a breakaway run. Or he might talk about throwing a long completion. He instead goes with a third option.
"I would say it's faking the dive, making the pitch and having the back go for a long touchdown run," Nesbitt said.
Nesbitt probably won't ever live up to his goal of developing into the next Donovan McNabb. But he just might become an updated version of Eric Crouch.