Commentary

Paul Johnson stays true to triple-option

Originally Published: August 20, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Even after Paul Johnson directed Georgia Southern to back-to-back Division I-AA national championships in 1999 and 2000, he was told his triple-option, spread offense would never work at the Division I-A level.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
AP Photo/John BazemorePaul Johnson led Georgia Tech to an ACC championship last season, his second with the Yellow Jackets.

Even after Johnson took over Navy's moribund program in 2002 and guided the Midshipmen to five consecutive winning seasons and bowl games from 2003 to '07, he was told his gimmick offense would never succeed in a BCS conference.

And now, even after Johnson won 20 games in his first two seasons at Georgia Tech, including an 11-3 record and ACC championship in 2009, his success is regarded as the flash-in-the-pan type by some critics.

After all, it's only a matter of time before opponents finally figure out how to stop his option attack, right?

"I quit worrying about that stuff 30 years ago," Johnson said. "If you can't dispel it in 30 years, you're not going to dispel it."

Johnson shrugs off the criticism in public and tells reporters it really doesn't bother him. But the people close to the third-year Georgia Tech coach say it's what drives him every day.

"It's not just the last two years that he's been told it won't work," said Yellow Jackets radio play-by-play announcer Wes Durham, one of Johnson's closest friends at Georgia Tech. "He's been told that for 20 years."

Imagine a painter spending years on a painting and then being told it looks like graffiti. Or a writer taking years to finish the next great American novel, only to be told it isn't worthy of being published. Or even your grandmother being told her prized meatloaf tastes like dog food.

In many ways, the triple-option offense is Johnson's masterpiece and over the past decade, his teams have operated it better than anyone else.

"He's a very intelligent person," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who succeeded Johnson as the Midshipmen's coach before the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl. "He knows the offense is sound. He knows it's not a gimmick offense. He knows it's based on angles and numbers. He's added wrinkles to it as people have come up with ways to stop it. He has an answer for everything when it comes to his offense."

As Johnson embarks on his 14th season as a college head coach, he'll attempt to prove his critics wrong once again. The No. 17 Yellow Jackets were picked to finish third in the ACC's Coastal Division, behind No. 6 Virginia Tech and No. 13 Miami in preseason voting by media attending last month's ACC Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C.

"I tell [the players] every day they haven't done anything, and they haven't," Johnson said. "We're 0-0, haven't won a game. There is no defending. Every year starts over. It's not like they say, 'You're the defending champ, you get to start out in first place, and somebody has to get you.' You start over every year, and every team's different. They all have their different identity."

The Georgia Tech offense will certainly have a new identity this season. Leading receiver Demaryius Thomas, who caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards with eight touchdowns last season, entered the NFL draft after his junior season. Junior running back Jonathan Dwyer also left after running 235 times for 1,395 yards with 14 touchdowns in 2009.

Georgia Tech will also have a new look on defense, with former Virginia coach Al Groh being hired as defensive coordinator and installing a new 3-4 scheme. Defensive end Derrick Morgan, who had 12½ sacks in 2009, also entered the NFL draft as a junior and was a first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans.

Johnson believes his former stars' success is only further evidence that his offense can work in a conference like the ACC. Thomas was the first wide receiver selected in April's NFL draft, after being taken with the No. 22 pick in the first round. Dwyer was a sixth-round choice by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

When Johnson took over Georgia Tech in 2008, opponents believed he would have problems recruiting receivers because his offense is so ground-oriented. The Yellow Jackets ranked No. 2 nationally in rushing last season, running 792 times for an average of 295.4 yards per game. Tech ranked No. 116 passing with only 126.7 yards per game and only the three service academies -- Air Force, Army and Navy -- attempted fewer passes in 2009.

But Johnson believes his offense is receiver-friendly because opposing defenses are so focused on stopping the run. Thomas averaged a whopping 25.1 yards per catch last season, which was the best average among players who had at least 56 receiving yards per game.

[+] EnlargeAl Groh
AP Photo/John BazemoreAl Groh was brought to Georgia Tech from Virginia to revamp the Yellow Jackets' defense.

"You're going to get one-on-one coverage and you're going to throw it to your best player," Johnson said. "If you're really good, you're going to put up big numbers like he did. You're not going to get doubled. Nobody's going to cut under you. You might not catch 100 balls, but on the 40 or 50 balls you catch, you're going to average more yards than just about everybody else."

Johnson also believes his offense is the right system for the right kind of quarterback.

"[Virginia Tech starter] Tyrod Taylor would be good in our offense," Johnson said. "We couldn't grab him in a phone booth."

Opponents had problems stopping Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt last season, too. He ran 279 times for 1,037 yards with 18 touchdowns. Nesbitt, a senior from Greensboro, Ga., also completed 75 of 162 passes for 1,701 yards with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions.

"He's got a strong arm," Johnson said. "He just needs to be more consistent."

Johnson believes his offense is just as capable of producing NFL quarterbacks as the pro-style attacks that ACC teams such as Duke, North Carolina and Virginia are using.

"How many NFL quarterbacks are at Virginia?" Johnson asked. "How many NFL quarterbacks are at Duke? How many NFL quarterbacks are at North Carolina? How many NFL quarterbacks were at Georgia before Matthew Stafford? If being in a pro-style offense is your ticket to the NFL, look around."

Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich, who hired Johnson after firing former coach Chan Gailey, said he had no concerns about the Yellow Jackets running an option offense.

"It wasn't too long ago that the University of Nebraska had one of the best teams in college football history using an option offense," Radakovich said. "I know teams have gone to more spread-out, passing offenses. For some reason or another, it seemed like the option offense had gone dormant as far as being in vogue. But I don't think there's even a question of it being effective."

Johnson's offense might be what makes Georgia Tech click, but his players say his competitiveness is what makes them tick.

"I think it's the system because what they do is unique," Durham said. "But I think his competitive nature amplifies it. The X's and O's are important and the players he's bringing in are important, but make no mistake -- he wants to win more than anyone else."

Nesbitt, who played much of last season with an ankle injury and then missed spring practice after undergoing offseason surgery, said the Yellow Jackets are only following in the footsteps of their coach.

"I think it carries over to us a lot because we see it from him every day," Nesbitt said. "When we see how competitive he is, we have no choice but to go out and play well for him."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book will be available in bookstores Aug. 24 and can be preordered here. You can contact Mark at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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