ATLANTA — When Josh Nesbitt was in high school, the coaches quickly realized they had a special player.
So, what position should he play?
They weren’t so sure about that.
“We knew he had athletic talent. We just didn’t know what to do with him,” said Larry Milligan, the former coach at Greene County High School in east Georgia. “Other people were saying he could be a great running back, or this and that. He just happened to fill a need for us at quarterback, but I’m pretty sure he could’ve played anywhere we needed him.”
Funny, they say the same thing about Nesbitt now.
Is he a quarterback? Is he a running back?
Doesn’t really matter. Just call him a winner.
Nesbitt is probably the MVP of Georgia Tech’s greatest season in a generation. The No. 7 Yellow Jackets (10-1) have already clinched a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and have their sights set on playing in the Orange Bowl.
The 6-foot-1, 214-pound junior is a big reason for all that success. He’s the one who runs the ball more than anyone out of the spread option offense. Even when he doesn’t take it himself, it’s usually on him to decide who does get the handoff or pitch.
Occasionally, he’ll even throw a pass — often for a big gain.
“He’s gotten better the more he’s done it,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “The offense really fits him, truthfully. It’s the kind of offense he really needs to be in. Where he’s really improved is becoming a better runner. Each week that goes by, he becomes a better runner. He kind of had to get used to that.”
Nesbitt is nothing if not adaptable.
At Greene County, Milligan ran a conventional offense that had the quarterback lining up directly behind center. But the coach quickly realized that Nesbitt would be even more dangerous out of the shotgun, which allowed him to get to the outside a little quicker and have more opportunities to ad lib his way into a big play, whether it was running or throwing.
Nesbitt also played safety in high school, and some schools — Georgia among them — offered him a scholarship to play exclusively on defense. He wound up choosing Georgia Tech, which allowed him to play quarterback in Chan Gailey’s pro-style system.
Ahh, but another change was coming.
Gailey was fired after Nesbitt’s freshman season. Enter Johnson, who switched to a run-oriented system that resembles old-style offenses such as the wishbone. There’s still a quarterback to take the snaps, but he’s really just an extra runner in the backfield.
Nesbitt wasn’t sure he wanted to play in that type of offense, but he gave it a chance.
“I was like, ‘I’ll go through spring practice and see what happens,”’ he recalled. “I went out there and gave it my all. I didn’t think about transferring at all so I could be into it mentally. I guess you could say it worked out.”
That’s an understatement. Nesbitt earned the starting job without much competition, rushed for 693 yards and guided the Yellow Jackets to a 9-4 season in 2008.
He’s been even better this season. Nesbitt has a staggering 218 carries — about 20 a game — for 847 yards and a team-leading 16 touchdowns. He’s the one who’s taken the bulk of the pounding, often getting hit even when he doesn’t have the ball because deception is a big part of Johnson’s system.
“I would say I love winning, so I guess it fits me,” Nesbitt said with a smile.
He averages only about 11 passes a game, and doesn’t even complete half of them. But opposing defenses are so focused on stopping the run that completions often result in huge gains. Eight passes have gone for touchdowns, the longest covering 87 yards. Demaryius Thomas is among the top receivers in the ACC.
“We can do so much in this offense,” Nesbitt said. “It’s tough to stop.”
He doesn’t get caught up in labels, though he doesn’t hesitate when asked whether he’s a true quarterback or just a running back masquerading in the role.
“I’m a quarterback,” Nesbitt said. “Hands down.”
He’s also the emotional leader of the team. When Georgia Tech found itself down by a field goal and facing fourth-and-inches in overtime against Wake Forest, Nesbitt went over to the sideline and assured Johnson he could get it — even though the Yellow Jackets had failed on all four of their fourth-down tries in regulation.
Nesbitt was true to his word, running for a 2-yard gain. He scored on the next play to win the game.
“You have to be tough the whole game,” he said. “The harder I get hit, the faster I have to get up. That’s the motto I’ve always lived by. I think it fires the other guys up.”
It’s hard to see Nesbitt going on to the NFL as a quarterback, but he’s willing to do adapt.
Running back? Safety? Wildcat hybrid?
Whatever it takes.
“I just want to be a football player,” he said.