Teams should try this option
By Scott Michaux| Columnist
Sunday, January 03, 2010

The jury is in.

Before Georgia Tech kicks off in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday, the evidence proves Paul Johnson's offense works at every level. You'd have to be an idiot to argue against it anymore.

Johnson has brought his old-school option back to the top of college football. And if middling programs stuck in neutral around the country are paying attention, they'll be installing some version of Johnson's triple-option in the near future.

Coaching is the ultimate copycat career, and folks will usually have a system in the chop shop picking out parts almost as quickly as somebody figures some new thing out and slaps a name on it. The West Coast, Run and Shoot, Spread ... you name the playbook, they'll steal the pieces that work.

Yet despite Johnson's success for more than 20 years at places like Hawaii, Georgia Southern, Navy and now Georgia Tech, his peers haven't been so quick to jump on the bandwagon.

But after two successful seasons at Georgia Tech, including this year's Atlantic Coast Conference title and Orange Bowl berth, some places should stop denying the obvious.

"I think time will tell now," said Georgia coach Mark Richt of another programs' willingness to adopt Johnson's unconventional system. "People are always looking for who's winning because winning is so crucial to every program. That's what drives everything are the victories.

"Whether it is athletic directors or coaches or presidents, whatever it is, if they say we are going to do that and if someone else tries it and they have success, then you will have more and more people doing it I'm sure. It has certainly worked for coach (Paul) Johnson and Georgia Tech."

What works so well is a system that relies on being different. Johnson can take athletes often passed over by powerhouse programs and put them into a system that maximizes their skills. But what makes it work so well is that defenses less familiar with it have a hard time preparing to stop it in.

Wake Forest got a taste of it twice the past two seasons from Navy and Georgia Tech.

"You can watch it on film but it's so much faster in real life," said Lee Malchow, a former Aquinas star who became a defensive specialist geared at stopping the triple-option as a stand-up end. "I don't see why more teams don't run it. We know they're going to run the ball and you still can't stop it."

That's the thing that makes it so hard to understand why more teams mired in the pack behind established powerhouse programs don't give it a try. Are you listening South Carolina?

"If everybody does the same thing, then don't it just come down to who recruits the best?" argues Johnson. "It makes sense to me that the schools who are gonna get the best recruits are gonna win every year. So I think it's good that there's differences."

His offense's effectiveness isn't going to be ruined by a few more practitioners. But being the first one in your conference would be a smart step.

"It is without a doubt an offensive system that is very, very difficult to deal with, especially if you have 10 games and they are the only one doing it," said Richt. "I think it makes it tougher. Not to say that if eight of the 10 were doing it, it wouldn't be a tough system. It is, there is no doubt about it. I think if you played 10 out of 12 teams that ran that system, you'd be recruiting more towards the style. You'd be repping it more week after week after week so you would have a better chance of having some success, but I don't think you are going to get to a point where you shut it down. You are not going to be able to do that."

But that doesn't keep coaches from belittling it. Some, like Texas coach Mack Brown cite old standards such as inability to come back from a deficit. Others like Clemson's Dabo Swinney claim it limits recruiting options.

Johnson simply laughs of both since he's been able to rally for wins just fine and is putting together a third consecutive quality recruiting class.

"We've been doing it for 20 years, and it's worked for three different schools pretty good," he said.

The other argument often heard is that the run-oriented triple-option simply isn't exciting enough for the modern fan. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe heard that from his own fans at Ohio University even after he turned the program from a conference doormat into an annual championship contender.

But anyone who watches Georgia Tech with its explosive big plays and regular gambling on fourth down would have a hard time citing lack of excitement as an element of Johnson's system. The Yellow Jackets were able to pile up enough points to earn 10 wins in a season when his defense could barely stop anyone. Imagine how well it will fare when fixes are made on the other side of the ball.

Of course the key is having a skilled practitioner like Johnson at the helm. He's been doing it so long and believes in it so forcefully that he coaches with an unflinching confidence.

"Paul calls a game without a sheet," Richt said. "He doesn't have to reinvent it every week. He's got it right in his mind and he's done it so often that he knows how people will defend it; if they do this we are going to do that. It's a matter of not only what they are doing, but how well they execute it and how well Paul understands it to be able to make any adjustment he needs to make."

Which is why teams need to start poaching Johnson's staff. After a Texas Bowl trouncing, Missouri can attest to how well Navy is doing with Johnson's system under Johnson protege Ken Niumatalolo. Georgia Southern is so eager to reestablish its good ol' days that it became the first to pilfer a piece of Johnson's Georgia Tech staff when it hired Jeff Monken last month.

Other programs should soon follow suit. The Gamecocks should start scouting out their own Johnson guys right now. Now that Steve Spurrier is following the Paul Dietzel/Lou Holtz pattern of mediocrity, the big-name hiring playbook needs to be retired.

They'll never get to compete with the same deck of players with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

If you want to really scare the established powers in the SEC East, bring in a system that can level the playing field.

That's an option teams need to accept before it's too late.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

ORANGE BOWL

- No. 10 Iowa vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech, Tuesday at 8 p.m. (Fox-Ch. 54)

From the Sunday, January 03, 2010 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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