Step 1: Get players AND playmakers. Paul Johnson has proved he could win an ACC title with Chan Gailey’s recruits but hasn’t proved he can recruit as well as Gailey did. That will become an ever bigger issue next fall, when there’s no Joshua Nesbitt. Tech needs pretty much everything — speed, size, depth — and the loss of recruiting coordinator Giff Smith, who was hired away by Gailey last winter to coach linebackers in Buffalo, was a major blow.
Tech doesn’t so much need to light up the recruiting scoreboard — if rankings meant all that much, Georgia wouldn’t be where it is — as to find players capable of changing a game. The difference between 10-3 and 6-6 wasn’t the failing of Johnson’s stylized offense or Al Groh’s 3-4 defense but the absence of a Demaryius Thomas and a Derrick Morgan. (And neither, it must be noted, was a five-star recruit.)
Step 2: Get holistic. There’s more to football than offense, even a stylized one. Sometimes Johnson, who came to Georgia Southern as a defensive line coach, acts as if the other stuff doesn’t matter. But it matters when the head coach decides to go for it on fourth-and-2 near midfield with a minute left in the first half, as Johnson did against Duke, and leaves his defensive coordinator facing a short field in a hurry-up setting. It matters when you lose to Virginia Tech on a kickoff return inside the final three minutes.
Rather than simply rage at his latest punter for his latest shank, Johnson needs to do the simple thing: Hire a special teams coordinator.
Step 3: Get humble. There’s a tendency when you’re the smartest guy in the room — even if the room is an open-air stadium seating 90,000 — to trust yourself to think of something. Nobody disputes that Johnson is one of the best play-callers in the business, but there are times when he gives the impression that his, as they say in Hollywood, is the name above the title. (Maybe he doesn’t mean to come off that way, but he does.)
Clever as he is, Johnson cannot outsmart everybody all the time at this level of football. Nobody can. (Urban Meyer just went 7-5. Mack Brown just went 5-7.) Johnson needs to work as hard to sign players as he does on the sideline during games. Directing inferior talent is how this superior coach wound up losing as many games as he won. Surely the superior coach recognizes as much.