ATLANTA — It’s hard to derive much from Georgia Tech’s 41-14 beatdown of Division I-AA Jacksonville State on Thursday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.
Kind of like trying to draw meaning from unfinished art work, you can almost see what the artist is driving toward, even if the current product is somewhat of a mess.
A couple of things were pretty clear Thursday, though.
No. 1, though he’s far from completing it, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson has a finished product in mind.
And No. 2, Flowery Branch graduate Jaybo Shaw is a bona fide college quarterback (more on that later).
All of those accolades you’ve heard heaped on Johnson by his colleagues aren’t because he throws a good offseason barbecue or is timely with his tape exchanges. It’s because he coaches a good football game, and he’s more than a "system coach."
Even working within the relatively narrow framework of his base triple option offense, Johnson demonstrated creativity and aggressiveness in his playcalling Thursday — two things many Tech fans will tell you have been missing from Grant Field in recent years.
But for all the progress made since April — and make no mistake Thursday’s Tech looked nothing like the version of the team that couldn’t get out of its own way in the spring — there’s still a long way to go if the Jackets’ bowl streak is going to be extended to 12 seasons in 2008-09.
And regardless of what happens when the schedule stiffens for Tech, the biggest steps toward long-term viability will be made in living rooms of high school athletes when the season is finished.
Right now, Johnson is working with a roster that was never intended to operate in its current form. Lucas Cox, a 236-pound prototypical I-formation fullback if ever there was one, is lining up at A-back for the Yellow Jackets. If you’re not yet familiar with the terminology of Johnson’s offense, A-back is a position more suited for Jerry Rice than Tom Rathman.
But improvising with the tools he inherited, Johnson’s using Cox like a tight end — lots of blocking, with the occasional pass route and even a carry or two mixed in. It worked well Thursday.
Cox’s only two touches went for a combined 51 yards, and he was key in giving quarterback Josh Nesbitt time to pass, and in sealing off running lanes on sweeps and pitches.
Tech and Johnson can be successful, sort of, with that do-the-best-with-what-ya-got formula. Though it should be noted that Chan Gailey won with similar dominance in his 2002 Georgia Tech debut, 45-3 over Vanderbilt. But to excel beyond better than average, the Jackets still need better supplies.
Quarterback is also still a work in progress for the Jackets, but the Nesbitt-Shaw tandem looks almost custom-built for Johnson.
Neither young quarterback (Nesbitt in his first college start, Shaw in his first college appearance) looked ready for Heisman hype, but Johnson’s got choices at the position.
Nesbitt has the size and raw play-making ability, but often looked unsure of himself.
At 190 pounds, it’s hard to imagine Shaw being able to withstand a year’s worth of 260-pound defensive ends crashing down on him 40 times per game. But while working with the first-teamers, he looked as smooth as ever running the offense he’s known since boyhood.
He entered the game midway through the third quarter and finished with 51 rushing yards on nine carries and completed all three of his pass attempts for 48 yards.
By his second series of college football he was changing blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage.
By his third series he had the Jackets in the end zone.
Dipping and darting through guys that ought to be bringing him down, he showed the same knack for frustrating opposing defenders, and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a Jacksonville State defender after getting slammed to the ground well after scoring on an 2-yard run.
And, same as it ever was, he showed the same knack for pulling himself up off the turf.
It was encouraging stuff for Tech fans to see. And in the next few years they’re sure to see more of it.
Patience will be needed though, because there won’t be many more games as easy as this one was, and in a transition year, tough times are likely.
But Thursday, Tech fans got glimpses of what Johnson hopes will be his masterpiece. It may not get its finishing touches this season, but if and when it does, it’s going to be a sight to behold.