Cory Mccartney
Tuesday April 15th, 2008

ATLANTA -- Not much has changed for Paul Johnson. The new Georgia Tech coach stands on the sideline with his hands on his knees, looking out onto the practice field. With their plain gold practice helmets and blue and white jerseys, the Yellow Jackets look very similar to the Navy team that Johnson coached for six seasons.

But the uniforms aren't the only reminder of Johnson's days in Annapolis -- there's also the ubiquitous criticism of his triple-option offense.

It's a relic of the 1970s and 80s.

It won't work against bigger, faster BCS teams.

You can't win with an unbalanced offense.

When Johnson hears that chatter he always has the same response: "I just laugh," he said. "It's comical."

Really, the only thing that's changed for Johnson since leaving the Midshipmen is that the view from the practice field now includes the backdrop of the Atlanta skyline.

"We played 30 some BCS schools when we were at Navy," Johnson said. "If it worked at Navy, why wouldn't it work here?"

In December, Georgia Tech chose Johnson to replace Chan Gailey, who was fired after six straight winning seasons and six straight mid-level bowl games. While Gailey did it with a conventional -- and often sluggish -- pro-style offense, Johnson brings in a run-heavy scheme that's akin to taking Gailey's playbook and strapping a stick of dynamite to it.

A descendent of the wishbone that was the backbone of Oklahoma football for 20 years, the triple-option, or specifically the flexbone option that Johnson runs, features the quarterback lined up directly behind center with two slotbacks aligned behind each of the tackles and a fullback behind the quarterback. Who gets the ball is up to the QB, who reads the defense and decides whether to pitch or keep it himself.

Despite his success with the Midshipmen, including an NCAA-record three straight national rushing titles and five straight bowl games, Johnson's triple-option doesn't have the same glitz as the spread formations that propelled Urban Meyer (Florida) and Rich Rodriguez (Michigan) to jobs at elite schools.

"I don't think a lot of people understand it," Johnson said. "Why does everybody not run what West Virginia runs? Why does everybody not run what Ohio State runs?"

Johnson's Navy teams scored 28.8 points per game against opponents from BCS conferences and Notre Dame, but still people look down at the offense, claiming it's a way for the service academics to make up for a lack of speed and size. But as Johnson points out, the Midshipmen have shown that it works against a number of the same ACC opponents he'll face at Georgia Tech.

"People say, 'Can it work on this level?' What level?" Johnson asked. "When I was at Navy we played Boston College, Maryland, Wake Forest. We played the same teams that are in the [ACC]. We scored a lot of points on them."

Last season Navy had 14 touchdown drives of 25 yards or more, 11 TD drives of one minute or less and 23 of two minutes or less. The quick-strike capabilities -- and the fact that Navy ran nearly 19 times a game more than Georgia Tech in the Gailey era -- has the attention of sophomore Jonathan Dwyer, the Jackets' leading returning rusher. "He led the nation in rushing the past three or four years at Navy, so how could I not get excited?" he said.

The last two seasons the Midshipmen had the nation's most prolific running attack and its 119th-ranked passing game, averaging just 11.1 attempts a game. Johnson says there's no reason to believe he'll be, for lack of a better term, tossing the aerial attack out the window at Georgia Tech, but the perceived lopsidedness has already had an effect on the Jackets' roster.

Upon Johnson's arrival in Atlanta, quarterback Taylor Bennett, a dropback passer who started all 13 games last season, left the team. (Bennett is scheduled to graduate in May and is expected to enroll as a grad student at Louisiana Tech.) Wide receiver D.J. Donley and tight end Colin Peek followed suit, with Donley leaving for Purdue and Peek landing at Alabama. Sean Renfree, a pro-style QB recruit, pulled his commitment and opted to sign with Duke. Fifth-year senior receiver James Johnson quit one week into spring practice. (Though Johnson made it clear that his decision had nothing to do with the new coaching staff, but rather his lack of passion for the game.)

While there's inevitably fallout with any coaching change, it's magnified when there is a change in philosophy as big as the one at Georgia Tech. Regardless, Johnson believes the defections have been blown out of proportion.

"It's not like there's been a mass exodus of everybody going, 'Oh man, I've got to get out of here,'" he said. "Now, after spring will we have some more guys go? We could. A lot of people talk about [the defections] because it fits their perception of what they want the story to be."

Out on the Jackets' practice field last Friday, Johnson stood off in the distance, intently watching his quarterbacks running pitch drills over and over. In fact, for the first 40 minutes of the practice, the only balls thrown were by wide receivers coach Buzz Preston. In total, the brisk two-hour practice included less than 15 minutes of throwing.

With an offense that's all about keeping the defenses confused and unbalanced, it stands to reason that with just 10 practices in the flexbone under their belts, the Yellow Jackets at times could look like a child who's just had the training wheels taken off. During practice, sophomore Josh Nesbitt, senior Calvin Booker and walk-ons Doc Coppage, Bryce Dykes and Jim Henry made their share of miscues.

Of course, it's still April. With more than four months before the season opener against Jacksonville State, it's way too early to judge the offense. Johnson's still teaching the basics leading up to the Yellow Jackets' spring game on Saturday.

Can the triple-option bring Georgia Tech a level of success that Gailey's conventional ways couldn't? Time will tell. But simply put, Johnson was brought to Georgia Tech because he has won and he has won doing things the way that he has wanted to do them. He's unwilling to change, unwilling to adapt, despite the constant knocks on his approach.

It's too gimmicky.

You can't recruit players to run this offense.

"It's like when Urban went to Florida. Everybody went, 'That stuff won't work in the SEC. There's too much speed.'" Johnson said. "Well, a national championship and a Heisman Trophy later ..." He shrugs his shoulders.

Different school. Same perceptions. Except this time Johnson has a chance to truly answer his critics.

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