ATLANTA — There’s an interesting experiment going on at Georgia Tech, where Paul Johnson is intent on proving the option offense his teams ran so well at Navy can work in a major conference.
The Yellow Jackets opened preseason practice Wednesday with their new coach and an offense that might look more familiar in the 1970s, when run-oriented schemes such as the wishbone ruled the day.
Most major schools go with more of a pro-style offense, looking for balance between the running and passing games. But Johnson, who came to Georgia Tech after Chan Gailey was fired, decided to stick with the scheme that helped win two Division I-AA championships at Georgia Southern and allowed Navy to remain competitive with bigger, faster opponents.
Johnson guided the Midshipmen to 43 wins and a bowl game each of the last five seasons before moving to Atlanta. He shrugs off those who say his offense won’t fly in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"I don’t pay any attention to that," said Johnson, whose team opens Aug. 28 against Jacksonville State. "I know what it is. People can form their own opinion and say whatever they want. It’s not a big deal for me."
While supremely confident in the scheme, Johnson is the first to admit he faces a huge challenge getting it installed at Georgia Tech — not to mention winning over players who aren’t used to all the motion, fake handoffs and pitches that are so integral to making it work.
"This is totally different," said sophomore Jonathan Dwyer, whose always called himself a tailback but is known as a "B-back" in Johnson’s scheme. "Some guys haven’t run this since Pop Warner."
Another sophomore, Josh Nesbitt, is the likely starter at quarterback, though he played sparingly his first college season and worked out of a totally different scheme in high school. Back then, he was used to taking snaps in the shotgun and throwing 35 to 40 times a game.
While he might go three games without throwing that many passes in this offense, Nesbitt has no complaints.
"I just want to be on the field," he said.
Nesbitt certainly has the speed and quickness Johnson is looking for, and it’s his job to lose even though he missed valuable time in the spring because of a groin injury.
"We’ll post the depth chart on Friday, but it’s not any secret that we’d like to see Josh come out and take the job," Johnson said. "Athletically, he certainly fits what we’re looking for. But he’s still got to do it."
The Yellow Jackets do have other options, though not as appealing as Nesbitt. Redshirt freshman Bryce Dykes showed promise in the spring. Senior Calvin Booker will likely get some playing time. And freshman Jaybo Shaw is certainly worth a look, considering he ran the same sort of offense at suburban Flowery Branch High School.
"I don’t know if it’s an advantage," Johnson said. "But if you’ve done some of that, it’s got to be beneficial."
Based on their performance in the spring game, the Yellow Jackets clearly have a lot of work to do. The holdovers struggled with the new scheme — missing assignments, running the wrong way, struggling to hang on to the ball.
While having a few more months to grasp things has helped, it’s still a work in progress.
"I think there’s some carry-over," Johnson said. "The guys who were out here in the spring at least know how to line up. But I was probably trying to do too much today, in all honesty. We’ve got freshmen who are drinking from a fire hose. They’re having trouble getting lined up with all the changing formations and sending them in motion. At times, it looks ragged."
Get used to it. The Yellow Jackets could begin the season with no one older than a sophomore starting at the so-called skill positions: quarterback, running back and receiver.
Still, those on the other side of the line believe the offense will create plenty of problems once everyone gets comfortable with it. They’ve already got a sampling of the problems the option can cause.
"A lot of people won’t understand what we’re doing," cornerback Mario Butler said. "It will be real exciting to watch them in practice every day, getting better every day."
Johnson is certainly convinced he’s got a winner of an offense, no matter where he’s coaching.
"Football is football," he said. "You do the same things. We’re doing the same things here that we did when I was in high school."