Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson’s post-signing day spring has included a variety of duties, including recruiting the 2015 class and leading the staff in a detailed review of the 2013 season, he said to “evaluate what was good, what wasn’t as good, why, why wasn’t it as good.”
He didn’t need video cut-ups or statistical breakdowns to know this much – the offense didn’t work like it was supposed to.
“We probably weren’t as good running the ball, so we threw the ball more,” he said. “We weren’t great at it, but we weren’t throwing it necessarily because we were good at it. We just weren’t as good at running it as we had been.”
Tech’s yards-per rush average against FBS competition – 5.07 – was the lowest it had been in Johnson’s six seasons at Tech, off the high in 2008 of 5.71. The offense’s yards-per-play average – 5.71 – was also the low for Johnson’s tenure.
|Year||Yards per play||Yards per carry||Yards per pass att.||Plays/20-yard play|
* Tech statistics against FBS competition. Interesting to note: the 10.3 yards-per-pass attempt average in 2009 was the highest in FBS.
Tech will begin spring practice Monday, the first of 15 sessions that concludes with the spring game April 18 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. With three new starters on the offensive line, as well as replacements for quarterback Vad Lee, B-back David Sims and A-back Robert Godhigh, there will be plenty of work to do.
“I’m excited about this team,” he said in a recent interview. “I think we’ve got guys who want to do what we’re going to do, which is important. We’re going to look at some different stuff, some changes and we’ll see how it goes.”
Johnson declined to elaborate on the changes, but said they’ll be noticeable. It would be reasonable to surmise that the diamond formation, the much ballyhooed set that the Yellow Jackets spent much time on last spring and preseason, may not be one of those changes. Tech ran it to great effect against Duke in the second game of the season but less so as the season went on.
“But if you watch the Duke game, it worked well because we were putting people on the ground,” he said. “We were blocking on the perimeter.”
However, with the element of surprise gone, “after that, the more we did it, the less effective it became.” Further, he said, defenses aligned themselves in a way that made the diamond a less appealing alternative. (Johnson made a point of noting, for “all the aficionados who know that those guys should be in the (shotgun)” that Tech actually completed a higher percentage of its passes from under center than out of the shotgun.)
“It’s the way people are lining up, or the way they’re playing or whatever,” he said. “So you’re going to do what gives you the best chance to win. It’s not computer games. You do what you feel like gives you the best chance to win with the personnel that you have.”
Lee was expected to advance Tech’s passing offense, and showed glimpses, but completed 45.6 percent of his passes, partly due to passing protection issues and an inexperienced set of wide receivers. He transferred to James Madison in January after and up-and-down season in his first and only season as starting quarterback. Part of the running game’s challenges also stemmed from Lee’s difficulties running the option. Tech played more out of the shotgun and threw more frequently than it had previously under Johnson, but results didn’t follow.
“You try to do what you feel like gives you the best chance to win,” he said. “Without getting on a different tangent, we go to practice every day, we watch those kids, we try to put ’em in a situation to do what they can do to help them win. It doesn’t do any good to keep stuffing a square peg in a round hole. At the same time, they’ve got to have something that they can do. You can’t wave a wand and all of the sudden, they become something they’re not, just because somebody thinks they are or wants them to be.”
The play of the offensive line had a role, as well. With injury hits even before the preseason began, Tech played few, if any, snaps with the projected startling lineup – Ray Beno and Morgan Bailey at tackles, Shaquille Mason and Will Jackson at guards and Jay Finch at center. At one point or another, all but Mason missed game or significant practice time with injuries. Bailey played only three games in 2013.
Injuries had a multiplicative effect. Players were shifted out of position, played hurt and played more than they might have if the line were healthy. Further, Johnson said, “there became little to no competition, and that creates problems unto itself when there’s no competition.”
Johnson said at various points during the season that the line needed to be coached better, and in the interview acknowledged that “we had some issues on the offensive line.” Asked if they would be addressed, he replied, “I think they’ll be taken care of.” He declined to say more.
“It doesn’t do any good to elaborate,” he said.
Johnson used the discussion of the line to veer off on a tangent regarding a common criticism of the line, that its playing style induces injury.
“I’ve been doing this for, what, 35 years, 36 years,” he said. “That’s why I just laugh at all those guys who know more about it than I do. Maybe they know more about football, (but) they don’t know more about what we’re doing on offense and why the guys get hurt. That’s a crock. It just happened. We lost ’em. Sometimes you’re unfortunate. We lost guys in the secondary, too.”
Two losses in particular continue to eat at Johnson, Virginia Tech and Georgia.
In hindsight, he said, the problem in the 17-10 Sept. 26 loss to the Hokies was that he thought players were “just too geeked up to play,” which might explain the slew of false-start penalties. “And for whatever reason, we’ve struggled with them. Their quarterback plays good against us,” he said, referring to the now-graduated Logan Thomas. “Other people line up and do the same things they do, we’ve just had a hard time executing against them.”
Regarding the Georgia game, the 41-34 double-overtime loss in which the Jackets led 20-0, “We had multiple chances to beat them and didn’t get it done,” he said. “You have to give them credit. They came back and they made plays. My hat’s off to ’em. I give them credit.”
Johnson said he still thinks about the Georgia loss and different costly plays.
“We could have put them away when we had a couple busts in the first half,” he said. “We had to kick field goals (instead of scoring touchdowns). If the plays don’t bust, the game’s gone. It’s over with. Or if we get a couple of fourth-down stops on defense. You think about all that. And same thing on offense, what if we’d done this or that, if you’d run that or should we have blitzed or should we have not blitzed. You replay all of it. It’s just the nature of the beast, I think.”
Going into the spring, Tech will have three starters to replace on the defensive line, two in the secondary, three on the offensive line and three in the backfield. With few injury issues and four early-enrollees, coaches should have the numbers to create their desired competitive atmosphere. There is no shortage of motivation.
“I wasn’t happy,” he said. “I don’t think anybody was happy. That’s not our goal, to go 7-6.”