A year earlier and Josh Nesbitt would’ve gone somewhere else. If Paul Johnson and his run-happy, triple-option offense had landed at Georgia Tech back when Nesbitt was still considering colleges, Nesbitt almost certainly would’ve tossed his Jackets’ recruiting letters into the reject basket.
You say “option” to most high school quarterbacks and they hear “oblivion.”
“Yes,” the Tech quarterback said Monday when asked if he would’ve signed elsewhere had he been recruited by Johnson and not former coach Chan Gailey, who ran a pro style offense. “My mindset was different coming out of high school than it is now.”
When Tech and Georgia meet Saturday, it will bring into focus something even more remarkable than the staggering turns of the two programs. The Jackets’ Paul Johnson did a better job developing a quarterback this season than Georgia’s Mark Richt.
This isn’t meant to be a knock on the Bulldogs’ Joe Cox. It’s just that two years ago when the option came to Tech, it didn’t figure the Jackets would have the better player at that position. Richt has a strong track record for recruiting and developing quarterbacks (David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Matthew Stafford). He runs a traditional offense. He played the position himself and ran the once-powerful Florida State offense.
Johnson has a controlled passing game: It’s called a pitch.
As a high school senior, Nesbitt threw for 2,256 yards and 32 touchdowns. He neither thought of, nor embraced, the idea of being an option quarterback.
“Uncertain,” he said, when asked how he felt when Johnson was first hired as Gailey’s replacement.
But look now. He has thrown for 1,418 yards and eight touchdowns, and rushed for 847 yards and 16 scores. He has thrown only 125 passes, completing 58. But his average yards per attempt, an often telling statistic, is 11.34. (Cox’s YPA: 8.13.)
He also has thrown only four interceptions. Factor that in with his yards per attempt and his college passing efficiency rating is 156.41. Nesbitt doesn’t qualify for the national leaders because he’s averaging only 11.4 passes per game (15 is the minimum). But if he qualified, he would rank eighth in the country, just behind Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen (156.45).
Bottom line: Nesbitt is operating in Johnson’s offense better than Cox is in Richt’s, running the option and keeping defenses off balance with a downfield passing threat.
“Josh has improved a great deal,” Johnson said. “The biggest thing is he’s more comfortable in what we’re asking him to do. The game has slowed down for him. He doesn’t have to think about everything, he can just react.”
Johnson said he didn’t sense any reticence from Nesbitt about the offense the first time coach and quarterback met. “I think he was like everybody. He had some questions. Everybody was asking what he was going to do and not do. He kept an open mind and I guess he eventually said, ‘Hey, it’s not too bad. I can have some fun with this.’”
Nesbitt hasn’t been all run. He threw for 266 yards against Mississippi State, and for just under 200 with two touchdowns against each Duke and Vanderbilt. He said he feels “10 times more comfortable” than a year ago.
“When he came here, he just told me, ‘You can have a great year, but you’re going to take a pounding.’ I don’t mind the pounding, and I thought I could be successful. I like the offense. I like the fact that we can score at any given moment and we have so many threats.”
Johnson’s confidence in Nesbitt was illustrated a few weeks ago when he went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Wake Forest five-yard line in overtime. A chip-shot field goal would’ve tied the game. Nesbitt came to the sideline and said, “I can make it coach.” Johnson replied, “I know you can.” Two Nesbitt runs later — a first down, then a touchdown — the game was over.
Nesbitt was asked about that first meeting with Johnson. Did he ever inquire how many times he would get to pass?
“No, I never mentioned it,” he said.
He bought in early, and it shows.