Commentary

Johnson has recruits buzzing

Yellow Jackets have it a little tougher on recruiting trail, but they're still making noise

Updated: July 20, 2010, 2:16 PM ET
By Jamie Newberg | ESPN Recruiting

How would you like Paul Johnson to run your college football program? All he has done in 13 seasons as a head coach is go 126-46 while at Georgia Southern, Navy and now Georgia Tech. He won two Division I-AA national championships with Georgia Southern in 1999 and 2000, and last season, his second with the Yellow Jackets, he led Georgia Tech to an ACC title.

In today's game of the spread offense and pass-happy football, Johnson runs the triple option flexbone (or veer). It's something Johnson has done since he was the offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern in 1985, and the results speak for themselves. While many teams that run the spread offense run variations of the triple option, the quarterback is in shotgun rather than under center in those schemes. Johnson's offense is the more traditional with the quarterback under center.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswirePaul Johnson's offense might be different, but the results on the field and on the recruiting trail speak for themselves.

And that's the catch. While many players today flock toward wide-open offenses, or schemes they see as ones that can prepare them for the NFL, Johnson's offense is obviously different. Johnson and his staff look for prospects who fit his system, and it's safe to say that Georgia Tech recruits a little differently than most of college football.

First, it's the quarterback that makes this offense go. Everything is based on his decisions and what he does with the ball based on what the defense does. This read will dictate where they are running the play and who is going to run the ball. This quarterback must be football-smart, athletic and fast. He has to be willing to take a hit, so toughness is essential. At Georgia Tech, Johnson loves to recruit two to five athletes a year who will all be given the opportunity to play quarterback. The best ones play, and the ones who don't are moved to another position.

The great thing about this offense is the number of weapons being used. With three running backs and the quarterback, four players are an option on any given running play. In Georgia Tech's scheme, there are A backs and B backs. The B back lines up behind the quarterback, while the A backs are wing backs. The B back is also considered a fullback but not in the traditional sense. Here, they are faster and more athletic but are certainly the bigger backs who have the ability to break tackles and carry the load. The B back is their go-to guy. Meanwhile, the A backs are small, quick, fast and explosive. They are dangerous in space and usually have good hands and versatility. They are an integral part of their option offense and passing game.

The Yellow Jackets will also look for slightly different offensive line prospects. They obviously have to be strong to take on the opposing defensive linemen, but more important, they have to be athletic and quick, especially off the ball. In Johnson's offense, he will sacrifice a little size for speed and quickness because this offense asks linemen to pull and get to the second level a lot, and in a hurry.

The hardest position to recruit for this offense is wide receiver. They don't get as many opportunities in the passing game as other offenses, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. Their blocking downfield is critical to the option game, so the Yellow Jackets have to find receivers who can block well. When they do get chances in the Georgia Tech passing game, the receivers will have opportunities to make big plays because many times the defense is trying to defend the option, not the pass.

So recruiting for this offense isn't easy, but Johnson has been successful and knows the types of players who make it click.

Who the Yellow Jackets have
So far with its 2011 recruiting class, Georgia Tech has nine commitments, with six having a chance to play on the offensive side of the ball.

Georgia Tech has committed three athletes in Quartterrio Morgan (Jonesboro, Ga./Mount Zion), Airyn Willis (High Point, N.C./Southwest Guilford) and Jabari Hunt-Days (Powder Springs, Ga./Hillgrove). Morgan could play a number of positions but looks best suited as an A back. While he's just 5-foot-10 and 172 pounds, Morgan is very explosive with the football, showcasing speed and quickness with the ball in his hands.

"I am not sure exactly where they see him fit," Mt. Zion head coach Jamie Aull said. "But I know the main thing is that he liked the coaches and he knew he would get plenty of chances to touch the ball in that scheme. He just wants touches."

Willis is an intriguing player. He could certainly end up as a quarterback, but he looks versatile enough to play A back, receiver or even safety. He is a high-value prospect because of that athleticism and versatility. Hunt-Days, who actually played fullback this past season, will play linebacker for the Yellow Jackets and join his older brother (Synjyn) at Georgia Tech.

Johnson and his staff have done very well across the offensive front, with four commitments to date. This quartet consists of Kyle Harris (Lindale, Ga.), Bryan Chamberlain (Albany, Ga./Monroe Comprehensive), Trey Braun (Tallahassee, Fla./Leon) and Shaq Mason (Columbia, Tenn./Columbia Central). They all fit the criteria to play offensive line in this offense -- they are more quick than big, can move their feet, and excel at run blocking. All indications are that Harris, Braun and Mason will play on the inside, while Chamberlain looks like a tackle. Mason is an intriguing prospect, especially considering he won't turn 17 until next month.

Georgia Tech's two other commitments are on defense. Chaz Cheeks (Gainesville, Ga./East Hall) is an outside linebacker prospect who plays defensive end in high school, while Darren Waller (Kennesaw, Ga./North Cobb) is a 6-4, 203-pound safety prospect who could grow into a linebacker.

Perhaps Johnson's top recruit on the defensive side of the ball is Al Groh, his new defensive coordinator. Groh, 66, spent the last nine seasons as the head coach at Virginia and has been a head coach and defensive coordinator in the NFL. That's an important detail, since players are always looking for coaches who can get them to the NFL. Groh brought a 3-4 scheme to Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jackets have bought into him and his scheme. They had a lot to learn, but they had a good spring. Georgia Tech has two other defensive coaches, Andy McCollum and Joe Speed. McCollum, the former head coach at Middle Tennessee State, left NC State to coach with the Yellow Jackets.

Who the Yellow Jackets still want
Now the Georgia Tech has to go out and find new players to fit its new defense. The primary need here is at linebacker. The Jackets need outside guys who can rush the passer and drop into coverage and big physical 'backers for the middle. Of course Georgia Tech would love to load up on the defensive line, too.

Georgia Tech is staying closer to home in filling out its roster than it did under previous regimes. Tech will start in the Peach State, work its region and go from there. And its pool is smaller than most of the other schools in the region because its academic requirements are more stringent.

Still, Johnson and his staff have done a terrific job of identifying in-state prospects who fit into what they do. This season, six of their nine commits are from Georgia. With his first three classes, Johnson signed 36 (of 60) from Georgia, 10 more than previous head coach Chan Gailey with his last three classes.

It's safe to say that Georgia Tech will round out its 2011 class with roughly 22 prospects. Running back Romar Morris (Salisbury, N.C.); offensive linemen Errin Joe (Lakeland, Fla./Lake Gibson), Mack Crowder (Bristol, Tenn./Tennessee), Xzavier Ward (Moultrie, Ga./Colquitt County), Quincy McKinney (Columbus, Ga./Carver), and Kaleb Johnson (Jacksonville, Fla./Ed H. White); defensive ends Ray Drew (Thomasville, Ga./Thomas County), Stephon Tuitt (Monroe, Ga./Monroe Area) and Norkeithius Otis (Gastonia, N.C./Ashbrook) and defensive tackle Darian Cooper (Hyattsville, Md./DeMatha); linebackers A.J. Johnson (Gainesville, Ga.), Deiontrez Mount (Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.), Curtis Grant (Richmond, Va./Hermitage) and Tremayne McNair (Jacksonville, N.C./White Oak); cornerback Jared Boyd (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson); safety Dominique Noble (Mount Ulla, N.C./West Rowan); and athletes Kris Frost (Matthews, N.C./Butler), Darius Jennings (Baltimore/Gilman), Vincent Dallas (Ellenwood, Ga./Cedar Grove) and Vad Lee (Durham, N.C./Hillside) are some recruits to keep an eye on with respect to the Yellow Jackets.

Bottom line
What will Johnson do for an encore this fall? He is 80 games over .500 as a head coach, and in his first two seasons at Georgia Tech, he has tied for the Coastal Division title (2008) and won the ACC outright (2009). Recruits have noticed, as more big-time prospects have visited Georgia Tech this spring and summer than in the past several years. If their success continues, look for the Yellow Jackets to build some momentum in the recruiting wars and find the athletes they are looking for on both sides of the ball.

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.

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