Johnson expects offensive system to work for Yellow Jackets
ATLANTA -- Paul Johnson used the triple-option spread offense while winning two Division I-AA national championships at Georgia Southern and again while turning around Navy, formerly one of the worst programs in recent college football history.
Now that Johnson is finally coaching at a school in a BCS conference, he isn't about to change the system that got him there.
Johnson, 50, left Navy for Georgia Tech in December, after leading the Midshipmen to unprecedented success during the last six seasons. His teams had an 11-1 record against service academy rivals Army and Air Force and won the coveted Commander-In-Chief's Trophy five consecutive times.
But even with a gaudy 107-39 record in 11 seasons overall, Johnson was bypassed for better jobs during each of the past few seasons. Most athletic directors at bigger schools were reluctant to hire a coach who relied on an offense that isn't used much in major college football and isn't much fun to watch, at least if you prefer a passing attack.
Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich, who fired football coach Chan Gailey after the Yellow Jackets had a winning record and played in a bowl game in each of the last six seasons, was willing to take a chance. More than anything else, Georgia Tech needs a high-powered offense that will score points, whether it's through the air or on the ground.
"It's going to be the same system," Johnson said. "There might be a different emphasis on some things. I think the system is varied enough to where we can tweak it to fit the players we have here. We've added a lot of different things at the schools where we've been in the past. We threw it a lot more at Hawaii [when Johnson was the offensive coordinator there]. We ran it more at Navy. I envision it being somewhere in between here."
Johnson's teams at Navy went 11-19 against BCS opponents, with many of the Midshipmen's victories coming against the likes of Duke and Vanderbilt. He also had a 1-5 record against Notre Dame, with the Midshipmen ending an NCAA record 43-game losing streak against the Fighting Irish with a 46-44 win in triple overtime in 2007.
At Georgia Tech, Johnson will inherit many of the pieces he needs to run his offense. Josh Nesbitt, who will be a sophomore in 2008, fits the mold of quarterbacks who have run Johnson's offense in the past. As a freshman, Nesbitt played in 11 games and ran 53 times for 339 yards. He was one of the country's top dual-threat quarterbacks at Greene County High School in Greensboro, Ga., throwing for more than 2,200 yards and running for nearly 500 as a senior in 2006.
Nesbitt will battle returning starter Taylor Bennett for the job during spring practice. Bennett started each of Georgia Tech's 13 games as a junior in 2007, throwing for 2,136 yards with nine interceptions and only seven touchdowns. Bennett is more of a traditional pocket passer and doesn't have much mobility.
"When Josh Nesbitt was in the game, there wasn't much difference from what we're going to do," Johnson said. "He was running with the ball. He was just catching it out of the shotgun. We'll be recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks. The ideal quarterback for this system is [Tennessee Titans starter] Vince Young. He'd be pretty good at doing what we do. So would [Florida's] Tim Tebow and [West Virginia's] Patrick White."
Johnson's offense certainly worked at his last stop; Navy led the country in rushing in each of the past three seasons. In 2007, quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and fullbacks Eric Kettani and Adam Ballard carried the football more than any other Midshipmen.
The Yellow Jackets lose tailback Tashard Choice, the ACC's leading rusher last season with 1,379 yards and 10 touchdowns. Jonathan Dwyer ran for 472 yards and nine touchdowns in 2007. He was the state's top tailback as a senior at Kell High School in Marietta, Ga., running for more than 1,800 yards with 21 touchdowns in 2006.
Johnson's offense will ask Georgia Tech's returning receivers to be more versatile. They'll run more often (each of Navy's top three slotbacks ran more than 60 times in 2007 and caught fewer than 14 passes) and will be asked to block a lot.
The offense won't use a tight end (returning Georgia Tech starter Colin Peek transferred to Alabama after Johnson was hired), and the Yellow Jackets will have to fight the perception that they won't throw the football much under their new coach.
Shortly after Johnson was hired, three recruits who had verbally committed to the previous coaching staff reneged on their promises. Wide receivers Chris Jackson of Henry County High in suburban Atlanta and A.J. Jenkins of Jacksonville, Fla. switched to Alabama and Illinois, respectively. Quarterback Sean Renfree of Scottsdale, Ariz., a drop-back passer, withdrew his pledge to Georgia Tech and is now considering Duke, Boise State and Arizona State, among other schools.
Johnson and his coaching staff have secured verbal commitments from a handful of out-of-state prospects since taking over. The Yellow Jackets have 13 players committed to enroll this year, with only a few weeks left before college football's Feb. 6 national signing day.
"Our job is to try to add to that," Johnson said. "We're really not going to have a class of 25 players. I'm not going to take guys just to take them. I don't think our system is going to change recruiting much. You might not recruit tight ends, that's about it. We'll want receivers who can block, but I've never seen an offense that didn't ask receivers to block."
Johnson isn't going to change his system to appease recruits or fans.
"Our system isn't much different from what everybody else is running," Johnson said. "Pretty much everybody is running what we're running, but they're doing it out of the shotgun. We're just doing it from under center.
"The thing I find funny, for lack of anything else, is people saying, 'I don't know if this system will work at this level.' It's worked on every level we've been. If we can run it against Boston College at Navy, why can't we run it against Boston College at Georgia Tech? If we can beat Pitt with this system at Navy, why can't we beat Pitt at Georgia Tech? Are we going to get worse players at Georgia Tech?"
If Johnson doesn't succeed at Georgia Tech, he insists his offense won't be to blame.
"When something is different, people don't want to see it succeed," Johnson said. "Would Hawaii have beaten Georgia in the Sugar Bowl running a conventional offense? Hawaii probably wouldn't have been there if they ran a conventional offense. It's not about the system. If you swapped the players at Georgia and put them in Hawaii's uniforms, you don't think that offense would work? Does that guarantee we're going to be really good at Georgia Tech? I don't know, that's why they play the games. But I know this system will work."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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