THE WORDS were delivered in a calm yet commanding voice. "We get the ball first in the second half," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson told his players at halftime of their Nov. 29 game at Georgia in which they trailed 28--12. "We will score on that possession, and that will change everything." A few minutes later, on the Yellow Jackets' first snap after intermission, quarterback Josh Nesbitt tossed the ball to Jonathan Dwyer on an option play, and the 6-foot, 235-pound running back broke three tackles while galloping 60 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown. From there, Georgia Tech went on to beat the Bulldogs 45--42, snapping a seven-game losing streak to its rival. And Dwyer, who rushed for 144 yards that day, showed the SEC what coaches and players in the ACC already knew: He's as hard to bring down as any running back in the country.
"Jonathan has great lower-body strength, and that makes him very difficult to tackle," says Brian Bohannon, the Yellow Jackets' quarterbacks and running backs coach. "Plus, for a 235-pound guy, he can run as well as anyone. We have big, big expectations for him this season."
Indeed, for his team to have a shot at getting into a BCS bowl, Dwyer, who was the ACC offensive player of the year as a sophomore in 2008 (with a conference-high 1,395 rushing yards), will have to contribute another monster season. But the entire offense—with nine returning starters—has to kick Johnson's option-based spread attack into a higher gear this season, the coach's second in Atlanta after six years at Navy. Though Georgia Tech ranked fourth in the country in rushing last year, big adjustments had to be made: For instance, the entire starting line had been recruited by Johnson's predecessor, Chan Gailey, to play a pro-style offense.
"There's no comparison between last year and this year in terms of how much more comfortable we are with this offense," Dwyer says. "Instead of thinking about everything we do, we're just playing. We're clicking as a unit, and that makes you play faster on the field."
Dwyer, from Marietta, Ga., turned down scholarship offers from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina to attend Tech. In what could be his final college season—barring a setback, he is viewed by many scouts as a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft—Dwyer believes that the Yellow Jackets can win their first national title since 1990. "If we keep improving like we did during the spring," he says, "we can shock the country."
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