ATLANTA — The evolution of offensive football, according to Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, started with the option. Miami’s one-back, two tight end sets then gained popularity — coaches love to copy — followed by a switch to more two-back sets. The new style, now implemented in the major conferences, is the spread formation out of the shotgun.
And yet here’s Georgia Tech, mocking evolution, scoffing at time, going the opposite direction and still racing past SEC defenses. The Yellow Jackets scored 38 points against Mississippi State, 45 at Georgia and will get another opportunity against the SEC tonight when they meet LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
But in a profession of copycats, no one seems eager to mimic Johnson’s triple option. And it prompts an interesting question: Given Johnson’s success at every stop, why doesn’t any other major program run his offense?
“Honestly?” Johnson asked. “I don’t think very many people understand it. They think they do, but they really don’t. I think there’s a perception out there, and a lot of times it’s perpetuated by the media and other people, that it’s 3 yards and a cloud of dust. And that fans don’t enjoy watching it and it’s boring and guys can’t get to the next level if they play in it.
“I think most of that has been proven wrong and, I think as we get more into it here, all of it will be proven wrong.”
And that’s the reality feared by ACC and Georgia fans: The Yellow Jackets are just beginning to discover the possibilities of this offense. Johnson said last week he hopes to implement run ‘n’ shoot principles into the offense before the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Reporters laughed. He didn’t.
“You’ll see the ability of (quarterback) Josh Nesbitt. You’re going to see him throw more and see how good of a quarterback he really is,” running back Jonathan Dwyer said. “Who knows what we’re capable of when we finally get this thing going?”
Johnson is used to maintaining his beliefs despite the criticism and the laughter. The offense will never work at a major conference, he heard someone say on the radio. Dwyer heard someone say the Jackets would win just three games. The triple option was for the academies and smaller schools.
As new, contemporary passing offenses sputtered in places like Michigan and Tennessee, the Yellow Jackets flourished in Johnson’s first season by simply running the ball.
Dwyer, disproving the cloud-of-dust notion, set a school record with an 88-yard run against Mississippi State and ripped off the fourth-longest run ever at Georgia Tech, an 85-yarder, against North Carolina. Georgia Tech, the very definition of mediocre over the last several years, won nine games.
But Johnson won’t complain if other programs choose to follow the path of time and search for the next new offense. Part of the triple option’s effectiveness, he said, is its difference from most of the NCAA’s other offenses.
“I feel sorry for anyone that has to prepare for this in a short period of time,” Dwyer said.
And when a defense believes it has figured out the three-pronged attack, that’s when Georgia Tech really strikes.
“There’s a comfort once you know exactly what you have, and then they change the blocking scheme and suddenly you can’t have the dive and you have to then become another piece of the puzzle,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “It’s a very demanding discipline.”
Styles in football go in cycles, however, so Johnson believes the triple option, like it was decades ago, could one day be the new spread. Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, a long-time friend of Johnson, told him that 19 of 32 NFL teams used the “Wildhog” formation this season made famous by Arkansas.
“That’s just single wing. That’s all it is,” Johnson said. “It’s not much different than what a lot of teams are running in college. Even for the NFL, it’s come full circle. The quarterback is a hard guy to account for if he’s a runner.
“Our offense hasn’t been en vogue. If we have success here, it will be more en vogue.”