Past Georgia Tech foes say it's hard to prepare for triple option

Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas tosses the ball in the first half of an NCAA college football game again Georgia Southern in Atlanta, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Mark Stoops threw his hands out by his side in a display of frustration and then strolled over to a member of the officiating crew and barked a few words as the game stopped for an injury timeout with Kentucky defensive lineman Courtney Miggins lying on the field in pain.

Play resumed in last season's TaxSlayer Bowl with a similar scene on the next snap. This time, the Kentucky coach elevated his intensity as another defensive lineman, Alvonte Bell, lay on the grass clutching his leg. Stoops yelled toward Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and became more animated as he pleaded with officials.

"He's incensed and quite irate about something," ESPN play-by-play announcer Mark Jones observed.

Georgia Tech's flexbone offense can be a frustrating and sometimes dangerous scheme to play against.

And, as Kentucky's 33-18 bowl loss to the Yellow Jackets showed, having extra time to prepare for the flexbone brings no guarantee of success.

photo Shy Tuttle (2) chases Ohio quarterback Greg Windham (14). The Ohio University Bobcats visited the University of Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in a non-conference NCAA football game on Saturday September 17, 2016.
photo Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) runs the ball against Georgia in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/Brett Davis)
photo Tennessee's Shy Tuttle (2) tires to get around Alabama's Cam Robinson (74). The top-ranked University of Alabama Crimson Tide visited the University of Tennessee Volunteers in SEC football action on October 15, 2016

"It's so different and so unique," Stoops said at Southeastern Conference media days in July. "It was a real challenge."

When Tennessee plays Georgia Tech on Labor Day in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets will have a new quarterback and a new lead running back.

Their signature play, the triple option, will remain a vital part of an offense that gave SEC defenses fits in 2016. The Yellow Jackets finished 3-0 against SEC competition, with regular-season wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia in addition to their bowl victory over Kentucky.

Tennessee's coaching staff has woven bits of Georgia Tech preparation into practices and meetings for months, but those who faced Georgia Tech last year say it's a difficult scheme to replicate on a practice field.

Kentucky had more than a month to prepare for the Yellow Jackets after defeating Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the regular-season finale. But the Jackets dominated time of possession against the Wildcats while piling up 266 rushing yards.

"It's very hard to simulate that for your scout team," Stoops said. "As you can see with the numerous injuries we had throughout the game, it's very hard for our D-line to be prepared for how quick and how efficient they are at what they do."

Replays showed that neither legal cut blocks nor illegal chop blocks were directly responsible for the back-to-back injuries Kentucky's defensive line suffered against Georgia Tech. Rather, it appeared that Miggins and Bell each fell over the pile of bodies created by the quick push Tech's line generated as the quarterback decided whether to hand the ball to a fullback, run it himself or pitch it to a running back.

"It was definitely overwhelming for some guys," Kentucky linebacker Kourtney Love said at SEC media days. "The way that team controls the clock, it's really tough. But we don't have to make any excuses. We didn't win the game."

Johnson has climbed the coaching ranks with the flexbone, winning two Football Championship Subdivision national championships at Georgia Southern before spending six years at Navy and the last nine at Georgia Tech.

He is one of a rare few in NCAA Division I college football who run the flexbone. The rarity adds to its effectiveness. Georgia Tech beat Vanderbilt 38-7 in the Commodores' third game of the 2016 season.

Vanderbilt does not play Georgia Tech annually, and with just one week to prepare for the flexbone, the Commodores yielded 289 rushing yards in the loss.

"That was a tough game, I'll be honest," Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks said at SEC media days. "They run the triple option, and you don't see that a lot in the SEC. You definitely have to be really disciplined, down to the bone. You have to know your assignment, just execute and try not to do anyone else's job."

Burks added that it was "pretty close" to impossible to simulate the scheme in practice.

"It's never going to get like it is live," Burks said. "Scout-team wise, they only have a week to prepare. They (Georgia Tech) have been practicing that for however long. It's just a lot different live than it is in practice."

Tennessee coach Butch Jones said last week that the Volunteers' scout team has been working on the triple option for "a long period of time."

"They have done a very, very good job of emulating and running the plays," Jones said. "More so than that, it's the speed of the game. It's quick decisions by the quarterback, the speed of the backs, the velocity of the up-front blocking. To me, that's the most challenging thing is just the overall speed of the game and the technique and fundamentals with which they play, because they're really good with what they do."

A frequent term used by Tennessee's defenders during recent interviews about playing against Georgia Tech's offense is "discipline."

"It's a game where they want to get you bored and then throw a curveball at you," Tennessee defensive end Jonathan Kongbo said, repeating advice given by defensive line coach Brady Hoke. "You've just got to stay disciplined."

Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith confirmed that principle. The Bulldogs play Georgia Tech every year, but the Yellow Jackets stole a 28-27 victory over their in-state rival on the road last season with a fourth-quarter rally.

"It's just being disciplined," Smith said. "If you're not disciplined, you're going to get run out of the stadium."

Contact David Cobb at [email protected]