Options All Around

November 16, 2009

Everybody laughed when Paul Johnson brought his flexbone offense to Georgia Tech. Now the Yellow Jackets are running defenses ragged and sitting at No. 7 in the BCS

Paul Johnson is a dour-faced, no-nonsense 52-year-old football coach who likes to cut to the chase. "You familiar with the triple option?" Johnson asked Anthony Allen, the young visitor in his modest office at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta one day in the spring of 2008. Allen, a talented running back who was planning to transfer from Louisville, was on a recruiting trip to Georgia Tech. But like many football players already on campus, Allen wasn't quite sure what to make of Johnson, the school's incoming coach, a man who over his long career had been called everything from an innovator to a mad scientist to a football kook. Allen reacted to Johnson's question the way many players of his generation would have: He stared blankly at the coach.

Johnson ripped out a sheet of paper from a notebook. He diagrammed five linemen and a quarterback under center. Behind the quarterback he drew a running back, what Johnson called "a B back." Two "A backs" were aligned behind the outside shoulders of the right and left tackle. Two receivers were split wide. Johnson explained the basics of what he called his spread-option offense: The quarterback could hand off to the B back, run it himself or pitch to one of the A backs. Johnson said that in this offense the quarterback would rush for 800 to 1,000 yards over the course of a season, that the B back would rack up between 1,250 and 1,500 yards and that one of the A backs would amass somewhere near 800 yards. Johnson made another promise: The Ramblin' Wreck would win a lot of games. "All he needed to tell me were the stats, and I was sold," says Allen. "And you know what? Everything he's said has come true."

When historians look back on the 2009 season, they may very well remember it as the year that Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets took the college football world by storm with the triple option. In 2008 Georgia Tech, projected by many to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division, went 9--4 and tied for first in the division. This season the Yellow Jackets own the ACC's best record (9--1, 6--1), rank No. 7 in the BCS and boast one of the nation's most dominating offenses, a unit that is second in rushing yards (314.9 per game), first in time of possession (34:56) and 12th in passing efficiency (150.86). They need only a win at Duke this Saturday to earn a spot in the ACC championship game.

They have opposing coaches throwing up their arms, wondering how to slow the Runnin' Wreck. "Nobody's figured it out, and there is no way to figure it out," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said in the days leading up to his team's Oct. 31 date with the Yellow Jackets. Not long after, Johnson proved prophetic: Georgia Tech torched the Commodores for 56 points and 597 yards of total offense, including 404 on the ground.

What happened to the triple option? Many of the spread offenses now popular in the game sprinkle variations of the option in their attack, but the old-school option, which teams ran with the quarterback under center (in formations such as the wishbone and flexbone and power I) and ran often, is for the most part long gone. Emory Bellard concocted the wishbone in the 1960s as the offensive coordinator at Texas, and over a summer he refined the formation by practicing the triple option with his two young sons and their friend in his backyard. The Longhorns adopted it in 1968 and not long after ripped off 30 consecutive victories. The offense began to spread from one powerhouse to another, from Barry Switzer's Oklahoma Sooners to Bear Bryant's Alabama Crimson Tide to Tom Osborne's Nebraska Cornhuskers. Eleven of the 22 national champions from 1969 through '90 ran the triple option.

The Cornhuskers won the national title in 1994, '95 and '97, but when Osborne retired after his last championship season, even Nebraska began to slowly phase out the ground-based attack. "Nowadays, athletic directors think that fans don't want to see the option, they want to see the ball in the air," says Osborne. "You have young coaches not wanting to do it because they're afraid they can't get jobs."

Paul Johnson, who never played college football, was bold and fearless and stubborn enough to stick with the option all these years. He went from working as an assistant at his old high school in western North Carolina to the offensive coordinator's gig at Lees-McRae Junior College in Banner Elk, N.C., to Division I-AA Georgia Southern, where after getting promoted from defensive line coach to offensive coordinator in 1985, he persuaded coach Erk Russell to run an option offense out of the flexbone, a formation derived from the wishbone. (It is what Johnson uses at Georgia Tech.) "We were run-and-shoot, and he wanted to move to an I formation," says Johnson. "I told him, 'We don't have a tight end, we don't have a fullback. Let's try this.' Fifteen minutes later he came back to me and said, 'Do what you have to do.'" The first season the Eagles rewrote the school record books and won the I-AA national title; then they repeated in '86. Johnson has been running the option ever since.

Throughout his career, which took him from Georgia Southern to Hawaii (as offensive coordinator) back to Georgia Southern (where he won two more national titles as head coach) to Navy (where his teams led the country in rushing in his last three seasons), Johnson has been hearing all the reasons why the triple option can't thrive at the BCS level. Reason No. 1: Programs that run the option will never attract elite skill-position recruits, who expect to play in the NFL. Says Johnson, "If you're talking about a classic, pro-style quarterback, that's probably right. But that's because he wouldn't fit in here." Reason No. 2: The quarterback takes a pounding running the ball so often. "When I was at the University of Hawaii for eight years, [passing teams] BYU and Utah lost a guy or two every year because they get blindsided and they're not used to taking the shots," he says. "Sure, you're going to take some hard shots [in the option], but you also learn how to minimize them." Reason No. 3: Defenses have become faster. Says Johnson, with a laugh, "Well, so have offenses."

When Johnson and his staff brought the option to Georgia Tech, where previous coach Chan Gailey had run a pro attack, an exodus of skill-position players predictably ensued. (The team's starting quarterback, tight end and a wide receiver all transferred.) A handful of recruits decommitted. "There's no question, people had to buy into it," says junior center Sean Bedford. "A lot of people are comfortable in the pro-style offense, where you don't have to learn new things and throw your body around as much. This was an unknown."

Players quickly found out how different things would be in the Johnson administration. Instead of handing each player a binder stuffed with plays at the team's first meeting, the coaching staff distributed pencils and blank spiral notebooks. Coaches drew plays on a white board, and players were told to scribble them down and take notes. "I was like, What's going on here?" recalls Allen. "I came from Bobby Petrino's offense [at Louisville], and we had a thick binder that was too heavy to carry around. Here we just have a few sheets of paper. When we write things down, we're forced to really think about what we're doing, what our blocking assignments are and where we're supposed to be."

On the surface the Georgia Tech offense is not complicated. "Truthfully, there are probably five or six plays we run in a game, and we sprinkle in a handful of pass plays," says Brian Bohannon, the team's quarterbacks and B backs coach. The option is a nightmare to defend because it forces all 11 defenders to stick to their assignments and move laterally instead of pursuing the ball. When Florida State prepared for its Oct. 10 game with the Yellow Jackets, the Seminoles practiced without a ball so that each defender would learn to stay with his assigned man. All Georgia Tech did was run for 401 yards in a 49--44 victory.

What makes Johnson's option so effective is that it is so unlike anything defenses face these days. "Teams are dealing with what we had to deal with in the '70s," says Osborne. "When we faced Oklahoma with the wishbone, it was the only time we saw it. Two or three years later we saw it more, and we got better at defending it. But for a lot of these teams, it's not like you can teach your scout team how to run the option."

Opponents struggle with Tech's option even though they know Johnson's team will keep the ball mostly on the ground. A year ago the Jackets ran the ball 78.4% of the time; this year they are running it 83.3% of the time, third nationally behind Navy and Air Force (both of whom also run the triple option, as does Army). Over the past five games Georgia Tech has averaged a staggering 377.6 rushing yards a game, including 412 in a 30--27 overtime victory over Wake Forest last Saturday.

Much of the Yellow Jackets' success has coincided with the development of junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt, who ran a shotgun offense at Greene County (Ga.) High. (Asked if he would have gone to Georgia Tech if he'd known that he was going to be an option quarterback, he says, "Probably not.") The 6'1", 217-pound Nesbitt, on pace for 1,500 yards passing and 1,000 rushing, now looks as though he has been running the option all his life. B back Jonathan Dwyer, a robust 6-foot 235-pounder who was the ACC player of the year in 2008, is on pace for 1,200 rushing yards. The 6-foot, 231-pound Allen, one of the A backs, averages more than a first down per carry—10.9 yards.

And to all you athletic directors out there with floundering football programs, these guys are anything but boring. As they lull teams with dive plays up the middle, the Yellow Jackets are capable of the big play on any snap—either on the ground or through the air. Georgia Tech may throw the ball only 11.7 times per game, but it averages 23.7 yards per completion. While Nesbitt is only a 45.2% passer, junior wideout Demaryius Thomas, a big target at 6'3", 229 pounds, leads the ACC in receiving yards per game (86.1) and ranks 24th nationally. In the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt, Johnson noticed that the strong safety was overcommitting to the run. So on the next play he sent A back Embry Peeples deep, and Nesbitt hit him for an 87-yard touchdown. "There's a misnomer that it's three yards and a cloud of dust," says Johnson. "But we have more plays of 50 yards than anyone else in the league."

In fact, Georgia Tech has had eight such plays, the latest a 59-yard Dwyer TD run against Wake Forest. What should be frightening for other ACC programs is that Johnson's offense is already a well-oiled machine with athletes who were recruited to play in Gailey's system. Yellow Jackets fans can't wait to see what the offense will be like when Johnson has a roster filled with his own players.

"There's that notion that you can't get the best players, but you could argue that a school like Georgia Tech has a huge recruiting edge," says Osborne. "There are always a few quarterbacks who are made for an option offense, great athletes whom other schools want to convert to another position, but now they don't have to convert if they want to play for a BCS school."

Johnson, ever the innovator, hasn't ruled out a day when the Yellow Jackets might air it out 30 times a game. "If we feel we need to make an adjustment, we will," he says. Of course, it has been 24 years since he went to the option, and his throwback attack has never looked better. "This has been working for us," he says, "so why change?"

Rush Hour

Maybe the Georgia Tech run-first philosophy is catching on. In the 52 games played last week between Division I-A programs, no fewer than nine teams rushed for at least 300 yards, and two others (Arizona and Wisconsin, with 294 each) were on the brink. Oh, and all 11 walked away winners.

PHOTOMATT CASHORE/US PRESSWIREIN THE LONG RUN QB Ricky Dobbs rushed for 102 yards and a TD as Navy won in South Bend for the second straight time.

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