Yellow Jackets coach confounds the skeptics

Staff WriterOctober 9, 2009 

It's ironic that in the wave of new head football coaches hired by ACC schools over the past two or three years, Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson has emerged as the first to deliver consistent success.

With his unusual option offense, Johnson was widely seen as the riskiest choice in a group that includes Boston College's Frank Spaziani, Clemson's Dabo Swinney, Duke's David Cutcliffle, Miami's Randy Shannon, North Carolina's Butch Davis, N.C. State's Tom O'Brien and in the most technical sense, Florida State's head-coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher, who was given offensive control after 2006.

Through Johnson's first 18 games, it's not even close, although Spaziani is off to a promising start.

Given very little time to make the sweeping adjustment from Chan Gailey's pro sets to the option, the Yellow Jackets went 9-4 in 2008 and take a 4-1 record to favored Florida State this week.

Granted, there have been a couple of stumbles -- primarily a 38-3 bowl loss to LSU and a 28-7 league loss to North Carolina last season.

But overall, the widespread predictions that Johnson's "square-peg, round-hole" offensive philosophy was doomed to flop have been miles off base.

"The people who say this offense can't work don't understand it very well," Johnson said in preseason. "People say last year was a fluke, but I think we'll be better this season. We'll see, though."

Johnson has had to overcome his share of strife, too.

In '08, the Jackets dealt with significant injuries to starting offensive tackles Dave Brown and Andrew Gardner, quarterback Josh Nesbitt, backup QB Jaybo Shaw, top receiver Demaryius Thomas and starting linebackers Brad Jefferson and Anthony Barnes.

Thus far in '09, five defensive starters have been or are sidelined, and top running back Jonathan Dwyer ('08 ACC player of the year) hasn't been completely healthy.

It's obvious the rest of the ACC hasn't been able to expose Johnson's playbook as junk mail.

The assumption that what worked at Navy could never work in a BCS conference is starting to resemble wishful thinking by Yellow Jackets recruiting opponents.

Not only is the option working, Nesbitt, a 5-foot-10 junior, is getting very good at it, and he certainly won't be leaving early to enter the NFL draft after this season.

When you consider that Nesbitt had not played one snap in the option until Johnson's arrival, the outlook for 2010 is bright again.

Quarterback recruit Jordan Luallen (6-4, 200) is being redshirted but has an extensive wishbone background. So does Shaw, a sophomore who has been shelved all season because of a broken collarbone.

The prediction that Nesbitt would be all-run, no-throw this season is also drifting off-target. He threw for almost 270 yards last week at Mississippi State, in large part because the option routinely forces defenses to play man-to-man pass coverage whether they like it or not.

Critics are correct that the option isn't a good come-from-behind vehicle. But if Johnson continues to win more than 70 percent of his games, there won't be a big need for huge rallies.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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