ATLANTA — After a month of spring practice, one thing was clear to new Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson — much work remains to be done before the season opener Aug. 28 against Jacksonville State.
The Yellow Jackets completed their first workouts under the former Georgia Southern and Navy coach, trying to switch offenses and defenses in a short amount of time. It’s the offensive scheme, which Johnson concocted during his tenure as Georgia Southern’s offensive coordinator in the program’s rebirth, that has gotten the most buzz at Georgia Tech.
“I think we all understand the offense,” said quarterback Josh Nesbitt.
Johnson’s teams at Georgia Southern and Navy were known for annually leading the nation in rushing. The run-first offense, primarily relying on the triple option, brought Georgia Southern two national championships and a runner-up spot in five seasons. At Navy, Johnson led what had become a moribund program to five bowl games in six years.
In 11 seasons as a head coach, Johnson has won 107 games, nearly 10 a season. His predecessor at Tech, Chan Gailey, never won more than nine in a season and never beat Georgia in seven tries. Enter Johnson and a staff that includes a handful of his crew from his Georgia Southern days.
At Tech’s T-Day game, Johnson stood behind the offensive huddle throughout, getting a close view of a handful of bobbled snaps and dropped pitches as the first team offense went in fits and starts against the first team defense. For the record, the Blue — with the first team defense and second team offense — beat the White 24-7.
“I’m not too worried if the fourth or fifth team quarterback drops a snap,” Johnson said. “I’ve got way more to worry about than that.”
What is believed to be the largest crowd in 21 years to see a Georgia Tech spring game watched the Jackets attempt 25 passes. And as longtime observers of Johnson’s schemes are used to, it wasn’t just three yards and a cloud of dust every time, not with Jamaal Evans’ 43-yard touchdown run on an option pitch and walk-on wide receiver Kevin Cone’s 48-yard TD catch from Calvin Booker.
“If you execute, there’s an opportunity to hit a lot of big plays, not only in the run game but in the passing game,” Johnson said of his offense. “We just have to get to where we execute at a higher level. There’s room for improvement everywhere.”
He’s turned up the intensity, starting with the conditioning drills before spring practice started. It’s one reason he lined up his best offensive players against his best defensive players.
“I don’t think you get much out of there beating the fool out of the third team,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is to get our guys better for the fall and the best way I know to do that is play good on good.”
What Johnson and his staff — including former Georgia Southern assistants Giff Smith, Brian Bohannon, Jeff Monken and Mike Sewak, who succeeded Johnson as GSU head coach — do like is how the Jackets have responded to a different style of playing and coaching.
“I feel good about the attitude of the team,” Johnson said. “There’s an excitement and a willingness to learn. Is there 100 percent? I don’t know if I’ve ever been on a team where there’s been 100 percent. I saw a lot of progress this spring. The more you can play, the better you’re going to get.”
The players too have taken to Johnson and his staff, which does include three holdovers from Gailey’s tenure.
“We get along real good,” Nesbitt said. “I’m surprised how much, but we get along real good. “
When last year’s starting quarterback Taylor Bennett opted to transfer, that opened the door for Booker and Nesbitt.
Nesbitt played more than Booker a year ago, but even that playing experience was limited.
“We don’t have anybody at that position who’s played,” Johnson said. “Josh ran a little package where they snapped it to him, and he ran with it every time.”
So putting the highly-touted Nesbitt in against Tech’s No. 1 defense ought to help him, the coach believes.
“I think he’ll grow from today as much as anything,” Johnson said. “The more we can put him in these situations, the better it’s going to be for him. The same thing for Jonathan Dwyer. After about the third or fourth game last year, he hardly played.”
Dwyer is among many players getting used to new positions. He’s no longer a tailback lining up eight yards behind the quarterback but a B-back as close as three yards to the QB. Andrew Smith moved from wide receiver to slotback — a position that requires the ability to catch passes, catch option pitches and block defenders that could be twice his size.
“It’s a whole new world from wide receiver,” Smith said.
But the view of the world from A-back and with the new offense has the Jackets excited about what’s to come — if they can get everything down.
“We’ve got the advantage because no one in the ACC has seen anything like this,” Smith said. “Week in and week out, they’re going to have to get their scout team to run it in three days. We’ve come a long way since that first practice when we had no idea what we were doing. By the time September rolls around, we’ll be in high gear.”
Johnson is glad that there is time to fix the miscues from the spring game.
“Thankfully, we don’t have to play next Saturday,” he said. “We’ve got some time to get better, and I think they will.”