By Jonathan Heeter
Macon (Ga.) Telegraph
May 6, 2008
ATLANTA Paul Johnson strives for perfection.
The new Georgia Tech head coach preaches it in his spread-option offense. It's even apparent in Johnson's golf game.
Johnson made a hole-in-one, the second of his life, in a late April practice round for the Chick-fil-A Alma Mater tournament.
He hopes he'll see similar success on the field this fall, in his inaugural season as the Yellow Jackets' head coach. But the team does face multiple question marks following the installation of the new offense, which resulted in a challenging spring practice.
Tech fumbled 14 times in one spring scrimmage, followed by six fumbles in a scrimmage a week later. The Jackets had nine fumbles in their spring game. It was a few weeks full of sporadic play summed up by turnovers in one Saturday afternoon in front of a crowd of 8,500, the largest at a Tech spring game since 1987.
"I like the way our guys competed, and there were some big plays," said Johnson, referring to a 43-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Evans and a 48-yard touchdown pass from Calvin Booker to walk-on Kevin Cone. "We've got to get to the point where we execute at a higher level."
The installation of the new offense produced some casualties. Four Yellow Jackets have transferred since Johnson arrived in December.
With the new offense not having a tight end position, Colin Peek left for Alabama. The receiving corps took a hit when D.J. Donley left for Purdue and senior James Johnson, who had 1,240 yards and nine touchdowns in three years, gave up football. Offensive lineman Trey Dunmon announced he was leaving following spring practice, citing the offensive change as the reason.
Quarterback Taylor Bennett, who started every game in 2007, transferred to Louisiana Tech and (utilizing an NCAA rule regarding graduate school) will be eligible right away. He wasn't mobile and likely wouldn't have fit into the Jackets' new plans anyway.
In addition to the attrition, a number of others had to learn new positions in the offense. Gone are the tailback and fullback designations. The Jackets now have A-backs (or slot backs) and B-backs. Receivers have to adjust to blocking most of the time.
Junior Greg Smith switched to the A-back position after starting seven games as a wide receiver in 2007, when he caught 37 passes for 588 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman Willie White switched from receiver to safety.
The role of the quarterback greatly changed this spring. The pro-style offense is gone, replaced by one that requires a running quarterback and a precise decision-maker.
Josh Nesbitt almost immediately was anointed the starting quarterback after Johnson was hired in December. Nesbitt finished third on the team in rushing, with 339 yards and a 6.4 yards-per-carry average, as a true freshman. His hard-running style seems to make him a natural fit.
Nesbitt didn't play in a triple-option offense at Greene County High. His athleticism, however, made him the frontrunner for the starting role, and no other quarterback in spring practice really challenged for that job, even after Nesbitt missed much of the spring with a groin injury.
"I am excited about Josh," Johnson said. "The more Josh can play, the better he is going to be. He has all the tools to be a great player. He just needs more experience."
The backup quarterback job could still be open heading into fall practice. Booker, a senior, had an impressive spring game but doesn't have the prototypical skill set to fit the offense. The 6-4, 235-pounder isn't a great runner that's a necessity in the triple option but might be the team's most polished passer. He completed 5 of 8 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.
Freshman walk-on Bryce Dykes was impressive in spots as the backup, and sometimes as the starter after the Nesbitt injury. The former Norcross High standout had a good grasp of the offense and looked impressive running the ball. He also played tough, another necessity in Johnson's offense, which doesn't allow no-contact jerseys for quarterbacks in practice.
"I think Bryce sees an opportunity, and he's taking advantage of it," Johnson said. "He has worked hard, and I'm proud of him."
The actual backup, and perhaps even the starter, might not be on campus yet.
Johnson recruited Jaybo Shaw and Tevin Washington because they fit his system. He already might envision one or both fitting into the offense this season as true freshmen.
Johnson definitely had some ammunition for selling points to the players.
His offenses at Navy were continually among the best in the nation. His record at Navy was 45-29, and he is 107-39 as a head coach, including Division I-AA championships at Georgia Southern in 1999 and 2000. The 50-year-old coach led Navy to five straight bowl games, a feat thought to be impossible after the program had dropped to one of the worst in the nation. The Midshipmen won five straight Commander In Chief trophies.
Navy led the nation in rushing in 2007, with more than 350 yards per game. The Midshipmen never finished below third nationally in rushing offense.
"Well, I think (the spread option) works in the ACC," Johnson said shortly after he was hired. "I was telling someone during the interview process that during the past six years at Navy, I think we played 29 BCS teams. And I believe a large part were in the ACC conference, and if I am not mistaken, we averaged over 30 points against them.
"Our system is adaptable. We will take the system and try and mold it to the type of men we have in the program."
The Yellow Jackets hope their struggles with the new offense will be mirrored by opposing teams this fall. If they couldn't get down the offense in the spring, it could be difficult for the opposition to simulate it in one week during the season.
While the offense struggled to grasp the new philosophy, the defense had a solid spring under new coordinator Dave Wommack, who led one of the best defenses in the nation at Southern Miss from 1994-2000.
Wommack has quite a few pieces to work with at Tech. End Michael Johnson and tackle Vance Walker already have received national recognition as elite prospects for the 2009 NFL draft. A very early ESPN.com mock draft had Johnson projected as the No. 2 overall pick.
Those two and senior tackle Darryl Richard shore up a dominant defensive line that will have to make up for some inexperience with the linebackers and secondary. Sophomores Anthony Barnes and Brad Jefferson were the standouts at linebacker in the spring, and sophomore Morgan Burnett switched back to safety after seeing time at cornerback as a true freshman.
The Yellow Jackets might have to lean on the defense a little if the offense doesn't get off to a fast start. But if Johnson can create the same offensive proficiency he had at Georgia Southern and Navy, it won't be too long before the Tech offense becomes dominant as well.
"I feel good about the attitude of the team," Johnson said. "There is an excitement and a willingness to learn."
SPRING 2008 OVERVIEW
PK Travis Bell, QB Taylor Bennett (transfer), P Durant Brooks, RB Tashard Choice, FB Mike Cox, LB Gary Guyton, WR James Johnson, S Djay Jones, S Jamal Lewis, RG Nate McManus, DE Adamm Oliver, TE Colin Peek (transfer), LG Matt Rhodes, CB Avery Roberson, DE Darrell Robertson, OC Kevin Tuminello, LB Philip Wheeler
CB Pat Clark, OC Trey Dunmon (transfer), S Joe Gaston, RB Rashaun Grant, OT Jacob Lonowski
2008 Returning Starters^
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. Class
AB Greg Smith 6-3/195 Jr.
LT Andrew Gardner 6-6/297 Sr.
RT A.J. Smith 6-7/299 *Sr.
DT Darryl Richard 6-4/290 *Sr.
DT Vance Walker 6-2/293 Sr.
LB Shane Bowen 6-1/218 Jr.
CB Jahi Word-Daniels 6-0/194 Sr.
Special Teams (0)
- -has utilized redshirt season
^ -six/more 2007 regular-season starts
Other Tested Returnees
BB/KR Jonathan Dwyer, WR Correy Earls, AB/KR Jamaal Evans, AB/PR Tyler Evans, OT Cord Howard, QB Josh Nesbitt, OL Brad Sellers, WR/PR Andrew Smith, WR Demaryius Thomas, OG Dan Voss
DT Elris Anyaibe, LB Anthony Barnes, S Morgan Burnett, LB Tony Clark, DE Robert Hall, DE Michael Johnson, DE Derrick Morgan, DS Bret White
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1998 7-1 (1) 10-2 Gator Bowl (W)
1999 5-3 (2) 8-4 Gator Bowl (L)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Peach Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 8-5 Seattle Bowl (W)
2002 4-4 (5) 7-6 Silicon Valley (L)
2003 4-4 (4) 7-6 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
2004 4-4 (6) 7-5 Champs Bowl (W)
2005 5-3 (3C) 7-5 Emerald Bowl (L)
2006 7-1 (1C) 9-5 Gator Bowl (L)
2007 4-4 (3C) 7-6 Humanitarian Bowl (L)
ACC: 50-30 (.625)
Overall: 79-47 (.627)
Date Opponent 2007 Record
Aug. 28 Jacksonville State 6-5 (5-3)
Sept. 6 at Boston College 11-3 (6-2)
Sept. 13 at Virginia Tech 11-3 (7-1)
Sept. 20 Mississippi State 8-5 (4-4)
Sept. 27 OPEN
Oct. 4 Duke 1-11 (0-8)
Oct. 11 Gardner-Webb 5-6 (2-2)
Oct. 18 at Clemson 9-4 (5-3)
Oct. 25 Virginia 9-4 (6-2)
Nov. 1 Florida State 7-6 (4-4)
Nov. 8 at North Carolina 4-8 (3-5)
Nov. 15 OPEN
Nov. 20 Miami 5-7 (2-6)
Nov. 29 Georgia 11-2 (6-2)
NOTE: Most game times still TBA.
ACCSPORTS.COM RE-LAUNCH COMING IN AUGUST!!