Georgia Tech Goes Deep: The Surprise Of The Early College Football Season

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 24: Stephen Hill #5 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets makes a catch for a 59-yard touchdown against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Bobby Dodd Field on September 24, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Georgia Tech's passing game was abysmal last year, but Tevin Washington, Stephen Hill, Orwin Smith and company have posted incredibly gaudy statistics thus far in 2011. Here's a look at what the passing game means to Paul Johnson's Yellow Jackets.

In general, a non-Hawaii Paul Johnson offense is going to do what a non-Hawaii Paul Johnson offense does. Run the flexbone, hand the ball to about six different players (or have the quarterback run it himself), and force defenses to play a particularly disciplined, unique brand of defense they don't actually have to play against anybody else on their schedule (unless they also play Navy). It often works -- the Yellow Jackets possess some of the most one-dimensional run-pass rates in college football, yet in 2009, they managed to average 34 points per game and win the ACC.

Last season, however, saw a significant step backwards. In this summer's Georgia Tech profile, I wrote the following:

Josh Nesbitt may not have been an even slightly accurate passer, but with him throwing rainbows to [Demaryius] Thomas, Tech's offense clicked. In 2009, the Yellow Jackets ranked fourth in Passing PPP+ (and just 66th in Passing Success Rate+). [...] Tech still didn't pass much, but when they did, it worked, and it made Johnson's offense unstoppable for teams not named Miami or Iowa.

In 2010, however ... not so much. Thomas relocated to Denver and was replaced by two primary receivers, Stephen Hill and Orwin Smith. Hill averaged 19.4 yards per catch over his 15 receptions, but his catch rate was barely half of Thomas': 30.6%. Nesbitt (674 passing yards, 6.4 per pass, 37% completion rate, 7 TD, 4 INT; 783 pre-sack rushing yards, +1.7 Adj. POE) certainly lofted some ducks his way, but that catch rate is still completely unacceptable, and it was very much the primary reason for Tech's Passing PPP+ falling all the way to 88th. The passing game as a whole fell from 14th in Passing S&P+ to 104th. Not surprisingly, as opponents stopped pretending to respect the deep ball, the Tech running game fell from spectacular to just good at the same time.

As odd as it may seem, the pass is going to once again be the key to Georgia Tech's offensive success in 2011. [...] For whatever it's worth, both Hill and Smith return this fall; but without solid development, that is not necessarily a reason for optimism.

I don't know ... do you consider a 79-percent catch rate and a per-target average of 26.4 yards to be "solid development?" Because those are the numbers Hill (18 targets, 14 catches, 462 yards) and Smith (six targets, five catches, 172 yards) are posting this fall.

Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech career has spanned 44 games at this point. They have completed at least three passes of 30-plus yards in a game six times (three times this season), and they've won all six of those games. They have completed at least two passes of 30+ yards with at least a 46-percent completion percentage ten times (including all four of this year's games), and they've won all 10 of those games. Tech doesn't have to pass much to succeed -- in fact, in Johnson's tenure they are just 2-4 when passing more than 16 times in a game (since passing that much usually means they're losing) -- but they do need to show just enough proficiency to peel defenders away from the line of scrimmage. And with the generally precise execution in the run game, lord knows they will have some pretty open throws to make at times. The problem in 2010 was that either Josh Nesbitt couldn't make the throws or Hill and Smith couldn't catch them. This year is a different story.

During Tech's conference title run in 2009, Nesbitt completed just 46 percent of his passes, but 26 percent of his completions went for 30 yards or more. For the season, he averaged 10.6 yards per pass, which is a spectacular total; Demaryius Thomas was incredibly effective and explosive, but without him, Tech's 2010 averages fell to a 38 percent completion rate and 6.5 yards per pass. Tech's defense regressed just enough that the Yellow Jackets faced a few more deficits, the passes became a little less wide open, and Nesbitt was just not a "pass when you have to pass" quarterback.

For all of his run skills, Nesbitt gave Reggie Ball a good name in the accuracy department, and when Nesbitt got hurt and Tevin Washington took over, the initial impression wasn't much better. But the chemistry Washington and Hill have generated so far this season has been incredible. Tech completed 20 passes of 30-plus yards in their 11-win 2009 campaign, and they have already completed 12 this year. Granted, 10 of those came against what we will call generous defenses (Western Carolina, Middle Tennessee and, perhaps the worst of the three, Kansas), but they completed two more last week against a solid UNC defense. Besides, they face a few iffy defenses every year, and this is still a higher big-play rate than they have ever managed.

Despite a weak schedule and poor preseason projections (which still play a small role in the overall ratings), Georgia Tech has been so incredibly effective on offense that they have moved to 12th in the overall F/+ rankings one-third of the way through the season. They rank first in raw, unadjusted Off. S&P, second in Rushing S&P and first in Passing S&P. They are making plays on both standard and passing downs. Josh Nesbitt established that you can win big if you can complete even 45 percent of your passes, and thus far Washington is at 64 percent. Hill is looking more and more like Thomas (or, at times, Calvin Johnson), Smith is more involved in the run game (which seems to be opening him up with the pass), the line is blocking a bit better, and a month into the 2011 season, this offense looks stronger than it ever has. (The jury is still out on the defense, though initial impressions are at least semi-encouraging.)

Suddenly the Yellow Jackets are thinking about their second conference title in three years, though to accomplish that goal they must get through the coming weeks (at N.C. State, Maryland, at Virginia) unscathed. The schedule is heavily back-loaded -- they face Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia in the last five games -- but even if they begin to show the occasional crack, they could still be the most high-caliber offense of the Johnson era. And to think, a month ago we didn't know if Washington would be the starting quarterback.

The Morning Tailgate runs weekdays. Check out the archives.

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