ATLANTA — He prefers to be called Joshua now. He figures it sounds like someone who’s all grown up, like a guy who’s ready to head out into the real world.
No matter the name, Joshua — not Josh anymore — Nesbitt still holds the same vital roles for defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Georgia Tech.
He’s the quarterback in an option offense. He’s the guy who makes it all go. And he’s probably one of the most valuable players in all of college football, especially on a team that lost its leading rusher and top receiver to the NFL.
“If he’ll play as well as he did last year,” coach Paul Johnson quipped, “I’ll call him whatever he wants.”
Nesbitt ranked fifth in the ACC in rushing with 1,037 yards, a total that included 18 touchdowns. He also passed for 1,701 yards, accounting for 10 more TDs. But his value to the team stretched beyond mere numbers, as impressive as those were.
In the option, Nesbitt is at the center of every play. He studies the defense at the line, takes the snap and makes a split-second decision on where the weakness lies — and, therefore, who should get the ball. Sometimes, he hands it off. Other times, he pitches it out. Plenty of times, he just keeps it himself.
Almost every time, he takes a jarring hit. Even if he doesn’t have the ball. Especially if he doesn’t have the ball.
That’s what an option quarterback does, luring defenders into making the tackle on someone who can’t actually hurt them, leaving fewer players to go after the guy who can.
The 217-pound Nesbitt is often slammed to the ground by a player much bigger than he is, but he always seems to hop right back up.
“A guy three times bigger than you is knocking the crap out of you, and you’re going to just get up and run the next play,” backup quarterback Tevin Washington said. “You’ve got to respect that from someone his size.”
Nesbitt’s importance will likely be even more profound this season, with the Yellow Jackets coming off their first outright ACC title since 1990.
Georgia Tech (11-3 last season) will have to replace running back Jonathan Dwyer, the ACC’s third-leading rusher with 1,395 yards, and receiver Demaryius Thomas, who turned a mere 46 receptions into 1,154 yards and eight TDs. Both gave up their senior season to enter the NFL draft.
“It’s going to be tough,” Nesbitt conceded. “But I think the guys we have will fill their shoes. Not in the same way, but in their own special way.”
Dwyer’s replacement is Anthony Allen, a wingback last season but returning to the position he played at Louisville before transferring.
The bigger question is who can match Thomas’ big-play ability? While the Jackets rarely throw the ball, they got huge numbers out of their big receiver, often by having Nesbitt throw the ball up and letting Thomas go up and get it.
Sophomore Stephen Hill has the physical tools (6-foot-5, 200 pounds) but no one is quite sure if he — or anyone else — can be as productive as Thomas.
“I don’t know if you can replace those guys with one person,” Johnson said. “But you can replace them with a couple of guys.”
Fortunately for the Yellow Jackets, they don’t have to worry about coming up with a new quarterback.
Nesbitt decided to return for his final season, mindful that any chance he has of playing in the NFL will likely involve moving to a new position.
He sat out spring practice, giving him time to heal from minor surgery on his right ankle.
Considering the beating he has taken on the field, it was a much-needed break.
“This is the best I have felt since high school,” Nesbitt said.
A few months ago, Nesbitt announced that he wanted to be called by his full first name during his senior season. It was a decision he reached in consultation with his mother.
“In the locker room, everybody calls me Nesbitt or 9 (his uniform number). It’s really not much of a change,” he said. “It’s just something me and my mother felt would fit in with being more businesslike.”
He’s been called Josh his whole life, though, so even mom has struggled a bit to get it right.
“I had to get on her a couple of times,” Nesbitt said, breaking into a big smile.
Nesbitt’s revised name wasn’t the only change at Georgia Tech during the offseason. More significantly, Johnson brought in former Virginia coach Al Groh as defensive coordinator, hoping the switch to a 3-4 alignment will improve a unit that allowed 360 yards a game, ranking in the bottom half of the ACC.