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Georgia Tech ready to prove triple-option doubters wrong yet again

ATLANTA -- His mannerisms become more flippant, his tone slightly dismissive. Paul Johnson has clearly had it with discussing Georgia Tech's offensive struggles in the Orange Bowl.

"Are you worried other teams will view what Iowa did as a template in defending the triple option?" I asked.

It was a valid question, considering the way the Hawkeyes devoured Johnson's offense, yet the coach pounced on it much like Adrian Clayborn and Iowa's defense did in beating the Yellow Jackets 24-14 while holding them to 143 rushing yards on that January night in Miami.

"They can play an eight-man front, that would be good," Johnson said. "Nobody's ever done that against this offense before, lined up like Iowa. It's hard to play against."

But when I tried to change gears, to discuss the defensive changes or the keys to the Jackets defending their ACC crown, Johnson couldn't let it go.

"Just out of curiosity, all those people that are worried about [our offense], how many games did Iowa give up over 14 on defense?" Johnson asked.

"Michigan," I say. "Northwestern, Ohio State ..."

"That [Ohio State] was in overtime," Johnson replied. "A lot of people struggled against them."

For the record, five teams scored at least 14 points on the Hawkeyes defense. But what was alarming wasn't just that Georgia Tech labored against Iowa, which was eighth in the nation in scoring D, it was how it labored: in a BCS game, in primetime, with an opportunity to prove that the triple option was more viable than archaic. Yet the Jackets were held to a season-low nine first downs and 155 total yards of offense, or nearly one-third of their season average.

Now Johnson and Georgia Tech must pick up the pieces and move forward from that setback to defend their ACC title, and they'll be doing it without former ACC Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Dwyer and three players picked in the first three rounds of the NFL draft: defensive end Derrick Morgan (the 16th overall pick), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (22nd overall) and safety Morgan Burnett (a third-round selection). Plus there's the matter of sweeping schematic changes on defense with the hiring of former Virginia coach Al Groh, who is installing a 3-4.

But if Johnson is harboring any concerns about the state of the program amid those changes, he isn't leading on. He's still confident-bordering-on-cocky.

It's an attitude that, to fully understand, you only need to spend a few moments with Johnson. He doesn't just believe in his offense; philosophy has become ideology. Johnson worships the Tao of the triple option and has always stayed adamant that if run precisely his offense -- which is so choreographed you could categorize it as a smashmouth ballet -- can't be stopped. Crusades have been waged over less hardened beliefs.

To Johnson's credit, the numbers don't lie. In his eight seasons as an FBS-level coach at Navy and Georgia Tech, Johnson's teams have averaged 305.7 rushing yards per game and have led the nation in rushing four times; in fact the only time one of his teams finished outside the top three was his first year in Atlanta when he converted the program over from Chan Gailey's pro-style attack. So forgive Johnson if he's all too quick to dismiss the notion that losing Dwyer, who ran for 2,780 yards and 26 touchdowns in the past two seasons, will have an enormous effect on the offense.

"I've been coaching for a long time and we don't have the same players every year. You just keep going. It is what it is," he said. "It gets old. I mean, do they go and ask teams that run the [I-formation] and they lose their tailback if that's it? It's ridiculous."

Having unwavering faith helps. So, too, does having Josh Nesbitt.

*****

Practice has long been over, but for Nesbitt, the work has just begun.

The senior quarterback, who was forced to stand on the sideline this spring after undergoing minor surgery on his right ankle, shows no signs of pain as he takes a two-step drop and lobs the ball downfield toward Stephen Hill, a lanky 6-foot-4 sophomore wideout, who catches the ball in stride.

Hill, who is battling junior Tyler Melton, redshirt sophomore Quentin Sims and redshirt freshman Jeremy Moore to replace Thomas, slowly jogged back toward Nesbitt, flipped the ball toward him and took his place at the back of the line.

Without the benefit of spring practice to log reps with the new featured pieces of the Jackets' offense, Nesbitt is taking advantage of whatever small moments he can find to develop chemistry. Along with the receivers, he's also been working privately with Anthony Allen, the 6-foot, 231-pound bruiser who is moving from the blocking A-back to fill Dywer's shoes at B-back.

"Don't nobody know about it, but me and Josh have been out there working, getting our mix together so that when Josh gets back on the field we have everything going," Allen said. "[We're] making sure we have our steps right and that we're matching up."

For Nesbitt, the tutoring is all part of his responsibilities. Rebounding from the Orange Bowl, defending the ACC title, erasing any doubts about the offense; he believes it all begins with him, the unequivocal leader of the Yellow Jackets.

"I think it's [on] me, not me being more productive, just me being more of a leader and helping everybody else out there on the field," he said.

Nesbitt's transformation from backup to contender for ACC Player of the Year may be the most impressive aspect of what Johnson has been able to accomplish in two seasons at Georgia Tech. Recruited as a drop-back passer out of Greene County High (Greensboro, Ga.), where he passed for 2,256 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior, Nesbitt's family and friends urged him to transfer after Johnson was hired away from Navy. But he listened to the coach's pitch. Johnson told him he would succeed, as long as he didn't mind taking a pounding.

Nesbitt stayed, took that pounding and has become a convert to the Church of the Triple Option, coming off a season in which he passed for 1,701 yards and 10 TDs and ran for another 1,037 yards and 18 scores, making him the 49th player in NCAA history to throw and rush for at least 1,000 yards in the same season.

Along the way he's gained the complete confidence of his coach. Last season at Wake Forest, with the Jackets down by a field goal in overtime and facing fourth-and-inches on the five-yard line, Nesbitt pleaded with his coach to go for it. On the next play, Nesbitt delivered the first down; the play after that he scored the game-winning touchdown.

Nesbitt now enters his senior season as a third-year starter and No. 2 on the ACC's all-time rushing list for a quarterback. And despite the fact that few BCS teams' chances hinge more on their quarterback than the Jackets' do on Nesbitt, he's rarely regarded as one of the nation's top QBs. Driving home the point: The Sporting News named Nesbitt as one of the top 10 power rushers in the nation.

Chalk it up to the stigma that constantly surrounds the triple option, which continues to force coach and quarterback to face doubters, who have a new round of ammo after an 11-win season was soured by a forgettable BCS game.

"It's the same pressure as last year," Nesbitt said. "Everybody always questions can we really win in this offense? We just have to go out there and prove it."

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