Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson doesn't feel like he's out of step with the times, even though most college football fans see his trademark offense as a relic from the '70s.
Old isn't necessarily obsolete.
Not when it comes to the triple option, a play in which the quarterback takes the snap from under center and then usually makes one of three choices: He gives it to a fullback on a quick dive; he fakes that handoff, keeps the ball and runs it himself; or he keeps it and pitches it to a running back who, after lining up adjacent to an offensive tackle, begins in motion before the snap.
"It's been really good for us through the years," Johnson said, referring to Division I-AA titles at Georgia Southern in 1999 and 2000, and during his six seasons at Navy, "so I didn't really see any need to change."
Despite having to fit some proverbially square pegs in round holes personnel-wise, Johnson has Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2 and second in the ACC Coastal Division) playing like days of old by running a lot of triple option.
The Yellow Jackets are averaging 352 yards in total offense, 236.6 on the ground (tops in the conference and ninth nationally) entering Saturday's game against Florida State (6-1, 3-1 and tied atop the Atlantic Division).
"I think the kids are excited with it and they're having fun with it," he said.
The triple option may look like an 8-track tape, but it plays like a CD.
"The thing that makes it successful is it's something that's very different from what people are seeing on a regular basis," said Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne, who relied on the option throughout his storied coaching career. "If you're six, seven weeks into a season and you've never seen it and you have four days to get ready, it can be a problem."
Defensively, each player must stick to his assignment. The linebacker who has the fullback must stay locked in on him. Same for whoever draws the quarterback and the tailback.
"It starts right there," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "Buddy, don't forget those three principles. Now what happens? All of a sudden a guy forgets to tackle the dive guy and he runs 80 yards for a touchdown. Untouched."
"The option really isolates people and, if you run it correctly, you're not blocking one or two people but you're taking care of them by the read (of the quarterback) and pretty soon the defense runs short," added Osborne. "They don't have enough people to handle everything."
Bowden said the Seminoles will practice this week without a ball so the defensive players don't think about chasing the ballcarrier. FSU's rushing defense has allowed an average of 79.86 yards, seventh nationally.
The Seminoles also have the luxury of a mobile quarterback (freshman E.J. Manuel, who plans to redshirt this season) to imitate the run-first play of Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt. He has gained 375 yards on 94 carries and has eight rushing touchdowns. (His passing numbers are more modest: 28-of-60 for 463 yards with two interceptions and two touchdowns.)
How well Manuel plays that role could be crucial, but there's only so many reps you can give your players in four days. And teams can't devote time each week preparing for an opponent they will see in November.
So why don't more teams use the triple option?
"Honest answer? Because it's hard to market it because it's not (like) the NFL (offense)," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "Schematically, it's one of the most difficult offenses to defend, but can you go get NFL-type talent to come play at your school when that's used against you? … (And) sometimes people want to see the ball thrown all over the place and fans and other people who really have no clue don't like to see it.
"I'm a big fan of it. I think it's tremendous. Don't look for Georgia Tech to be on our schedule."
While at Utah, Meyer spent 90 minutes on the phone picking Johnson's brain about the triple option so that he could incorporate elements into his attack:
The spread, the offense of the new millennium.
Johnson insists that the only substantive difference between the spread and his offense is where the quarterback lines up. The Gators' Tim Tebow and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy tuck the ball and go pretty often.
"What we do is not a lot whole lot different than what those teams in the gun do, they're just not under center," Johnson said. "I'm not sure the trend nationally has gone in a different direction. Maybe not the triple, but there's not a team playing today that doesn't run (some) option … When we get where we'd like to be, you also have four wide receivers so you can do some of that as well. I think you can do about anything out of this offense."
A triple option-based offense isn't a grind-it-out system; Tech has 41 plays of 20-plus yards. The Yellow Jackets don't throw the ball much, but a significant number of pass plays have become runs as protection has broken down.
Nor is the triple option overly complicated to learn; it comes down to a quarterback making decisions and then executing them, talented ball carriers like Jonathan Dwyer (754 yards, five touchdowns) and linemen who can move.
"It's kind of like the old single wing," Bowden said. "It's gone out of style. No one has the nerve to stick with it, but Paul Johnson's run it all his life … and has been successful with it."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.