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College football preview: Tech enters into the Paul Johnson era

POSTED: August 21, 2008 5:01 a.m.
John Bazemore | The Associated Press/

Georgia Tech freshman quarterback and Flowery Branch High graduate Jaybo Shaw drops back to pass during the first preseason football practice for the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.

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ATLANTA — There’s no reason to compare Jonathan Dwyer with Tashard Choice.

With Georgia Tech’s switch from the pro style offense that worked so well for Choice to the option attack under new coach Paul Johnson, Dwyer plays a different position and a different role as the Yellow Jackets’ top running back.

Dwyer hopes he earns a comparison with Adrian Peterson — the Peterson now with the Chicago Bears who flourished in Johnson’s offense for two I-AA national championships at Georgia Southern.

Dwyer is a "B back" in Johnson’s scheme. He’ll line up behind the quarterback like a fullback and have more blocking assignments than last year, but he also expects a lot of carries — just like Peterson enjoyed at Georgia Southern.

"The only person I can compare myself to is Adrian Peterson when coach Johnson was at Georgia Southern," Dwyer said. "We’re pretty much the same back and the same type."

Peterson rushed for more than 2,000 yards in each of his first three seasons at Georgia Southern and finished with 9,161 yards and 114 touchdowns before he was drafted in 2002 by the Bears.

Choice rushed for 1,379 yards and 10 touchdowns despite a rash of injuries in his senior season. Dwyer added 436 yards rushing and nine touchdowns but had only 82 carries as a freshman. He could have more than 82 carries in just a few games this year.

All the new talk about "A backs" and "B backs" and the triple-option has created a stir that has mystified, angered and bemused Johnson. He’s enjoyed huge success at Georgia Southern, Hawaii and Navy, but now there are questions about how the attack can work in a major conference.

In his first few months on the job, Johnson seemed to stiffen when faced with repeated questions about the offense. Now he says he has to laugh as reporters and fans ask if the option attack can be productive in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"That’s the thing that’s hilarious, ‘At this level,’" Johnson said. "I mean, what? Are we in the NFC East?

"When I was at the Naval Academy, I can promise you we played Maryland, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Duke, Rutgers, Boston College, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and they’re on the same level as we are. It’s not like they weren’t in the same division or the same level, so that’s why I don’t buy that."

Johnson was hired before Georgia Tech’s Humanitarian Bowl loss to Fresno State to replace Chan Gailey, who had six consecutive winning seasons at Georgia Tech but was 0-6 against Georgia.

At Navy, Johnson was unbeaten in six tries against top rival Army. Johnson knows he’ll be judged in Atlanta by his success against Georgia.

The big in-state rivalry game comes at the end of the regular season. Johnson first has to show he’s not crazy to keep insisting he’ll win with his offense in a major conference. But he knows the questions won’t end.

"I don’t think it will ever stop," he said. "I mean as soon as you lose a game, that’s going to be the reason. Everybody has their opinion and we will see what happens.

"I find it amusing really. It’s past the point of anything else other than being amusing to me."

Johnson left Navy for a seven-year contract worth about $11 million at Georgia Tech.

Johnson took over a Navy program that was 1-20 from 2000-2001 and left with a 45-29 record. His career record is 107-39.

"In my mind, over the span of time we have proven the offense will work at a lot of different schools," he said.

Johnson’s hire led to the transfers of 2007 starting quarterback Taylor Bennett, who will play his senior season at Louisiana Tech this year, and receiver D.J. Donley, who was one of the big names in Gailey’s last recruiting class before he moved to Purdue.

Another receiver, James Johnson, opted to bypass his senior season rather than try to conform to the new offense.

"When we heard about him I did a little research myself and saw that Navy receivers didn’t have as many catches as we’re used to getting," said James Johnson.

Before announcing his decision to give up football, James Johnson couldn’t believe the new coach was really going to install the option.

"Not too many people run that," said James Johnson. "I’m pretty sure he’s just saying that to trick people."

The new coach is serious about his offense. No fooling. But he does expect the option to trick some defenses, and after spring practice his players agreed.

"In the spring it took us a long time before we could kind of get it down on defense and know what we were doing," said defensive end Michael Johnson.

"We had three or four weeks to practice for it, but during the season teams are going to get maybe a few days. That’s going to be our biggest advantage. ... I think it’s going to work."

Johnson’s staff put the offensive linemen on a weight-loss program.

"Most of what we’re going to be doing is going as fast as we can no matter what the defensive lineman does," said senior tackle Andrew Gardner. "It gives you a chance to open yourself up and go all-out, full speed every play and I think that could lead to good stuff."

The defensive line should be solid with a trio of seniors: Johnson, Vance Walker and Darryl Richard. The offensive line also is filled with seniors and juniors.

Elsewhere, there is little experience.

The youth begins at quarterback, where sophomore Josh Nesbitt is expected to start. The top backup may be Flowery Branch graduate and Tech freshman Jaybo Shaw. There’s also a lot of youth at running back.

"The good thing about guys being young is they are going to be here for a while and they’ll get better and better as they play," said Paul Johnson. "Right now I’m concerned about this year. This is the year I care about and the first game. I’m not worried about next year or the future. Anybody who knows me, I’m competitive. I want to win right now."

Players say they appreciate Johnson’s candid nature.

"One thing, you’re going to know how coach Johnson feels," Richard said. "It won’t catch you by surprise. That’s something you have to respect. ... He’s going to be vocal. He’s going to let you know whether you’re doing things right or you’re doing things wrong.

"He’s a coach who understands this game also involves some psychology, no matter how much you want to say it’s just played on the field. You have to get into the mind of the player and use that to your advantage."

Part of the psychology game for Johnson may be letting the players know little may be expected of the Yellow Jackets by those outside the program.

"When people are saying bad things about you, are you going to use that as motivation to pick your team up and say ‘People don’t think you’re very good. Are you going to prove them wrong?’" Richard said. "I think the coaching staff is definitely doing that."



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