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New season, new set of questions for Ga. Tech
Paul Johnson
Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson returns nearly his entire starting offense but has to replace the bulk of his defensive line. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue
Year 2
A look at how Paul Johnson’s teams have fared from year 1 to year 2.
1997-GSU     10-3
1998-GSU    14-1
2002-Navy    2-10
2003-Navy    8-5
Georgia Tech was 9-4 in Johnson’s first year in 2008.

Year two of the Paul Johnson era has begun for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the next question is — can they do it again?

The Jackets posted a 9-4 record in 2008, with the team’s first victory over Florida State in Atlantic Coast Conference play and the first win over Georgia in seven years. In doing so, they offered an answer to critics’ contentions that Johnson’s option offense wouldn’t work in a BCS conference.

Under Johnson, the Jackets averaged nearly 24.4 points and 372.5 yards of offense per game — leading the ACC in both categories.

“I didn’t worry too much about it. I knew it would work if we do it right,” Johnson said of his offense. “If we don’t do it right, it won’t work, like any other offense.”

Johnson, whose offenses at Georgia Southern, Navy and Hawaii were routinely among the best rushing attacks in the nation, also believes the Jackets could be even better in 2009. The Jackets, behind ACC offensive player of the year Jonathan Dwyer, led the conference in rushing and were fourth in the nation in 2008.

With Dwyer, quarterback Josh Nesbitt and almost the entire offense that started the last five games of last season back, plus another spring practice of his philosophy under their belts, Johnson expects improvement.

“We’ll be better at it this year, no question,” he said. “We were a lot better in spring than we were a year ago. I think they’re more confident and they have a better understanding of what we’re trying to ask them to do. I think we can play faster, which is important.”

Playing faster means executing the offense more quickly — and it might be hard to improve on last year’s numbers. Dwyer ran for 1,395 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008 as a sophomore. Nesbitt ran for 693 yards and threw for 808 more, accounting for nine touchdowns. A-back Roddy Jones had 690 yards, including a 214-yard performance against Georgia. The Jackets topped 400 yards rushing in each of its last two regular-season games.

Johnson had a month of spring practice and last year’s preseason to put in the basic elements of his spread option offense. Though the Jackets had a few defections from the team, the bulk of the team greeted Johnson and his staff and their different way of doing things.
They were rewarded with only the third season of at least nine wins in the last 10 years.

“I think for the most part the buy in was there,” Johnson said. “The kids aren’t stupid. They go out there and practice and look and they think, ‘if we do this right, this can be pretty good’ or they think, ‘this is not going to work no matter what we do.’ We’ve got smart kids and they saw early on, ‘we do this right, it can be pretty good. Let’s give this thing a chance and see.’

“A couple of kids didn’t want to give it a chance,” Johnson continued. But for the vast majority of the players saw “once they got out there and started doing it, they said, ‘I can see how this can work,’” he added. “As they got better at doing it and more comfortable with it, I think they’re really excited about it.”

Though Johnson has had his share of notable fullbacks in the offense — Adrian Peterson ran for a Division I record in career rushing at Georgia Southern — Dwyer is unique.

“Dwyer’s good. He’s good,” Johnson said. “He’s 240 pounds. Adrian Peterson was a great player, too. Jon’s probably faster than AP. If Jon has the same kind of year that he had last year, he’s probably a first-round draft pick.”

Nesbitt has made the biggest leap from last year to this year, according to Johnson. The responsibility for running the offense and understanding the opposing defenses falls squarely on the junior quarterback’s shoulders.

“He probably improved as much as anybody on the football team this spring,” the coach said. “He’s more comfortable in what he’s doing.”  

While the Jackets answered the what-ifs on the offense last year, the defense may face a new set of queries. Most of the defensive line from 2008 is in NFL training camp, though the Jackets return the bulk of their starting linebackers and defensive backs. Junior Morgan Burnett tied for the national lead in interceptions.

Junior defensive end Derrick Morgan had seven sacks last season and likely will be joined by Robert Hall, Jason Peters and Ben Anderson. Redshirt freshman T.J. Barnes — all 6-feet-7, 353 pounds — is one of the most talked-about defenders.

Though the rest of the defensive line hasn’t had as much playing time as Morgan nor carries the reputation of the players they’re replacing, the Jackets remain confident.

“We’ve got some guys who have played,” Johnson said. “We moved Jason Peters inside. Ben Anderson’s played. TJ Barnes is going to be a good player. We’ve got some guys. We’re going to be all right.”

Though Tech had its share of highlight moments in 2008 — beating Miami, Florida State and Georgia — the Jackets also stumbled in their bowl game against LSU. And the schedule for 2009 includes road games at Miami and Florida State, plus home dates with Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Georgia.

“We didn’t achieve all our goals,” Johnson said. “We fully anticipate we’ll get their best shot. They’re going to get ours, too.”

He also isn’t worried about the familiarity with his offense at the highest level breeding any defense for it.

“They’ve got 26 years of film,” Johnson said. “We played the same teams at Georgia Southern for five years and won the conference every year. They’re going to get better at defending it. We’re going to get better at running it … I hope.”