We know Paul Johnson’s offense, right? A-backs go in motion. B-back gets the bulk of the carries. Quarterback throws passes that can’t be caught by man or bird.
OK, scratch that. We knew Paul Johnson’s offense. But the spread option as currently deployed by Georgia Tech is forcing us to reassess.
Option football is based on the triple option, wherein a quarterback keeps the ball and runs himself, hands it to the back bursting up the middle or pitches it to a man on the flank. With Joshua Nesbitt as on-field administrator, options were essentially reduced to two: He’d keep the ball or hand it to his up-the-gut B-back.
In 2009, Nesbitt and B-back Jonathan Dwyer carried 514 times; the top four A-backs carried 181 times. Last season Nesbitt and backup quarterback Tevin Washington — Nesbitt broke his arm in November, you’ll recall — and B-back Anthony Allen rushed 512 times; the top three A-backs rushed 151 times.
It’s not as if that way was a bust. In its first three seasons under Johnson, Tech finished fourth, second and first among FBS schools in rushing. But that was a different sort of rushing, and here’s how you can tell: The B-back has always been the featured ballcarrier in Johnson’s offense — Dwyer had consecutive 1,300-yard seasons, and Allen topped 1,200 last year — but in 2011 the starting B-back hasn’t yet had a 100-yard game. David Sims has carried 30 times, which matches the number of carries allotted to the A-back crew of Orwin Smith, Embry Peeples and Roddy Jones.
Granted, this could be a function of opposition. Western Carolina, Middle Tennessee and Kansas might not have had anybody capable of defending the perimeter. It could also be that, in Washington, Tech has a quarterback whose favored option isn’t to run it himself.
This isn’t a knock on Nesbitt. He was a tremendous college player who would take any dare. But Washington isn’t as powerful as Nesbitt, and the new man is less apt to carry four defenders five yards for a needed first down. When in doubt, Nesbitt trusted himself to make a play. Washington seems to trust his mates a bit more.
As a consequence, we’re seeing a rushing attack predicated less on power than on speed and deception, and the results have been breathtaking. (Indeed, Tech has trotted out a T-shirt bearing the pertinent numbers from the Jackets’ destruction of Kansas.) It’s tempting to call this a true triple option, except that Washington has added a viable fourth way.
The forward pass is no longer a forlorn hope. Nesbitt left Tech having completed 43.1 percent of his passes as a starting quarterback, and without Demaryius Thomas to outfight defenders that percentage would have been far worse. Washington completed four passes against Kansas — for a total of 164 yards.
The Jayhawks cheated toward the line to try to stop the run, and the A-backs ran past them. And — key difference — Washington hit them in stride. Said Johnson: “Those are the plays we haven’t completed the past couple of years. He’s throwing them where they can catch them. That’s the idea.”
Well, yes. And now a defense has to defend not only the keep and the handoff, but the pitch and the throw. In sum, it has become a spread option in the fullest sense.
On sheer talent, there’s no current Jacket who’s a match for Nesbitt or Dwyer or Allen or Thomas, but that’s not the point. This is a crew that fits a specific scheme — and the line, it must be noted, is doing some road-grading — and that scheme has worked wherever Johnson has taken it.
We shouldn’t expect it to keep working quite so well. (Through three games, Tech leads the nation in total offense – by 74 yards a game over No. 2 Oklahoma State.) Neither should we expect it to stop working. Johnson knows his business, and he recruited these players for a specific purpose. Tech’s not going to average 675 yards over 12 games, but it’s clear the Jackets are onto something. And that something, if not exactly new, is more than a bit different.
By Mark Bradley