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Posted: Wednesday September 9, 2009 5:00PM; Updated: Wednesday September 9, 2009 5:26PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Johnson, Ga. Tech proving option can dominate at highest level

Story Highlights

A staple in the '70s and '80s, the option disappeared at the dawn of the century

Johnson insists it's a big-play offense, not a grind-it-out system like many think

Johnson is trying to prove an option team can still contend for a title

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Tailback Jonathan Dwyer's success at Georgia Tech could help draw more elite recruits to option offenses.
Tailback Jonathan Dwyer's success at Georgia Tech could help draw more elite recruits to option offenses.
AP
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Les Miles couldn't believe his ears.

"No," the LSU coach said in a May interview. "You mean Saturday? And then Thursday?"

Miles had just learned Clemson would open its season on Sept. 5 and then turn around and face Georgia Tech and coach Paul Johnson's spread option offense five days later on national television. Miles, long an admirer of option football, shook his head. "I would not want to play Georgia Tech in a short week."

Even though Miles' team crushed Johnson's team in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl, Miles believes Johnson is building something dangerous at Georgia Tech. The combination of BCS conference-caliber athletes and the option could cause opposing coaches nightmares once Johnson has completely stocked the program with his own recruits. But can the offense -- a staple in the '70s and '80s that virtually disappeared by the dawn of this century -- propel a team to a national title?

It seems like longer than 12 years since option pioneer Tom Osborne led Nebraska to a share of the 1997 national title. Florida, winner of two of the past three national titles, uses several option principles, but the offense Gators coach Urban Meyer runs bears little resemblance to the one Johnson honed at Division I-AA power Georgia Southern and at Navy, where the service academy's size limits and strict academic requirements forced him to use a scheme that levels the playing field for less athletic teams.

"Now he's probably got a little better athletes running it," said Osborne, now athletic director at Nebraska. "The thing that's really devastating is to only have four days to get ready. You're seeing spread offense, spread offense, spread offense, and all of a sudden you've only got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday to prepare for a wishbone. It's really hard to get prepared for something that different in that short a time."

On Thursday, Clemson will arrive at Bobby Dodd Stadium after only two days of game week preparation for the Yellow Jackets, who also face Miami in an ESPN feature game seven days later. Miles guessed the Tigers probably would spend at least a week of their preseason practice preparing for the option, because two days wouldn't be enough.

That's because the option devastates a defense in two ways. It forces all 11 men to adhere to their assignments perfectly while at the same time forcing them to play against their instincts by moving laterally instead of attacking. The man assigned to the fullback must hit the fullback on every play. Ditto for the players assigned to the quarterback and to the pitch man. Learning to defend the option properly requires significant practice time and a little ingenuity. When one of Osborne's teams prepared for another option team, his defensive coaches would sometimes practice without a football. That way, defenders learned to hit their assigned man instead of worrying about who had the ball.

The option is based on a simple notion: if an offense can leave one or two defenders unblocked, the quarterback can read the unblocked defenders and choose the best course of action. In a true triple option, the quarterback has three choices.

"I hear the thing about assignment football, but you've got to play assignment football no matter what offense you play," Johnson said. "It gets magnified when you run the option because so many guys are on islands, and it gives your guys a chance to make big plays."

Osborne explained the zone plays popular now -- where linemen block the nearest defender and allow the quarterback or tailback to read the play and find a hole -- are effective to a point, but not as effective as a well-run option. "Most of the zone plays you see now, if you block things perfectly, you may make seven, eight, nine yards," he said. "If somebody misses a tackle, you might go a long way. In option football, if you execute correctly, you've got enough people to block everybody and theoretically score a touchdown on most every option play."

Take, for example, a play the Yellow Jackets ran in their win at Georgia last season that was highlighted on the excellent blog Smart Football.

Choice No. 1: It's second-and-eight from the Georgia Tech 37-yard line. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt takes the snap. He reads the unblocked defensive tackle to determine whether he should hand the ball to bowling ball-shaped B-back Jonathan Dwyer. The unblocked Bulldog stays home. Nesbitt fakes the handoff and sprints right. Dwyer is tackled by two defenders.

Choice No. 2: Now Nesbitt reads Georgia safety C.J. Byrd. Much like a basketball player leading a two-on-one fast break, Nesbitt will wait for Byrd to commit to Nesbitt or A-back Roddy Jones. If Byrd never commits, Nesbitt will keep the ball.

Choice No. 3: Byrd closes in on Nesbitt. At the last possible moment, Nesbitt pitches to Jones. The defense should have a player assigned to Jones, but either someone has blown his assignment or Georgia coaches haven't adjusted this particular formation. Jones races for a 34-yard gain.

It galls Johnson that people think of the option as a grind-it-out offense. "There's a real misconception that it's three yards and a cloud of dust," he said. "Really, it's a big-play offense."

How big? In 2008, Georgia Tech managed 67 plays that gained 20 yards or more. Of those, 39 went longer than 30 yards, and 10 went longer than 50 yards. And though Georgia Tech led the ACC and finished fourth in the nation in rushing (273.2 yards per game), the Yellow Jackets are inherently dangerous through the air because the option forces teams to leave only one safety deep. Osborne said an option team with an adequate passer at quarterback can break some huge plays through the air.

"When we played Oklahoma when they were running the wishbone, it scared us to death," Osborne said. "They might only throw the ball five times a game, but I'd say three or four of those, you'd have somebody 15 yards behind your secondary. Because to stop the run, you had to commit so quickly."

So why, if the option is so effective, did it fall out of favor? At Nebraska, a Florida-bred quarterback named Tommie Frazier befuddled unblocked defenders and led the Cornhuskers to back-to-back national titles in 1994 and '95. Then the option basically disappeared at the higher levels of college football, replaced by pro-style offenses led by lead-footed, 6-foot-5 gunslingers. In recent years, spread offenses have used more mobile quarterbacks, but few programs have been willing to commit to the option.

One reason is because recruits believe NFL teams won't want them if they play in an option offense. Coaches such as Johnson, Florida's Meyer and Michigan's Rich Rodriguez encounter this constantly on the recruiting trail. Johnson has heard plenty about how he won't be able to recruit top-rated prospects. He concedes some never will consider Georgia Tech. "It's ludicrous to say, 'Well, you're not going to get the great pro-style quarterback.' You're right," Johnson said. "Because they couldn't play here."

As for everyone else, Johnson can cite the players he has put in the NFL. One example is Chicago Bears back Adrian Peterson, who played for Johnson at Georgia Southern and is entering his eighth NFL season. Johnson said he often asks recruits to consider the fact that he doesn't recruit only players who play in option offenses in high school. He explains that NFL coaches are looking for the best athletes, regardless of system.

Miles described the recruiting edge offered by the option. Speedy skill position players are plentiful, he said. Elite offensive linemen are not. But the option doesn't require 6-7, 330-pound linemen. Because it allows linemen to take angles that give them an advantage on every play, a nimble 6-3, 275-pounder can flourish. "You make [the linemen] best by running a triple-option offense," Miles said. "You can always get an athletic fullback. You can always get an athletic quarterback. Then all you need is speed."

The Jackets have that speed, and Johnson is recruiting more. Johnson's first step toward proving the option can dominate again at college football's highest level is winning the ACC Coastal Division. If Georgia Tech can beat Clemson and then division rival Miami, it can take the driver's seat in the division and enjoy a giant exposure bump from two nationally televised wins.

If the Yellow Jackets reach the point where they annually compete for ACC titles, expect copycats. Suddenly, quarterbacks across the country will be reading the unblocked opponents while defenders try to remember if they have the quarterback or the pitch man. If Johnson succeeds -- and one all-time great option aficionado seems confident he can -- he could usher in the second golden age of option football. "I guess," Osborne said, "this has come full circle."

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