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Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech is building for the future, but we’ll see if he reaches it

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The Yellow Jackets face a murderous schedule and might need another year for a great young defensive coordinator to figure things out.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Georgia Tech
Paul Johnson and TaQuon Marshall (16)
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

In early July on Twitter, some old highlights surfaced. They were from the 2011 Alabama-Georgia Southern game, in which Jeff Monken’s Eagles took on maybe the best Nick Saban defense and went through it like, as Saban said, “shit through a tin horn.

No FBS team averaged better than 4.4 yards per play against the Crimson Tide that year, none rushed for more than 148 yards, and none scored more than 14 points. In Bama’s only loss, it took LSU overtime to reach nine points.

GASO averaged 7.4 yards per play, rushed for 302 yards, and scored 21 points. Bama won, of course, but Monken’s triple option — with which he has since revived Army — did unfathomable damage.

The spread option remains college football’s most seductive offense. When it works, nothing is sexier. It renders talent advantages moot; it leaves five-star defenders flailing at air (or bracing for cut blocks they don’t see coming). It cuts you down to size. It hustles you. It is three-card monte.

Monken was in his second season in Statesboro; before that, he spent 13 seasons coaching running backs for Paul Johnson, the one true triple-option guy who’s gotten a chance to prove this offense at the power-conference level.

The current don of the triple option, Johnson’s career has been impossibly unique. He graduated with a P.E. degree from Western Carolina and didn’t play college football, but he was a Division II offensive coordinator by age 23 and calling plays for I-AA national champion Georgia Southern by age 28.

Johnson has won 182 games as a head coach over the last 21 seasons. He has championed the most anti-social offense in the sport and has achieved far beyond his recruiting rankings. After slipping into a .500-ish rut following the 2009 ACC title run, he surged back to 11 in 2014, then nine in 2016.

Even with 2016’s run of good fortune, though, it’s been hard not to notice the slippage.

2017 Georgia Tech S&P+ progression

Tech played above the ACC average in four of Johnson’s first seven seasons. The Yellow Jackets have failed to clear that bar in each of the last three. The defense has been as mediocre as ever — GT has ranked between 50th and 66th in Def. S&P+ for five straight seasons and has averaged a 59.1 ranking during Johnson’s tenure — but the offense has found fewer advantages, too.

The possible culprit? Talent. Johnson’s system is good at making up for a disparity in recruiting rankings, but he still needs to clear a certain bar.

Since 2012 — basically the beginning of his second cycle of recruits — the correlation between Johnson’s three-year recruiting average and his team’s S&P+ rating:

  • When the average Tech recruit over the previous three years has been a mid-three-star or better (0.84 in the 247Sports Composite, to be exact), Tech averages an S&P+ rating of plus-9.9 points per game and a top-35 ranking.
  • When it creeps below that bar, the Jackets average a plus-4.6 rating and a ranking outside the top 50.

A good system can change how much talent you need, but you still need a certain amount, especially once opponents have adjusted (somewhat) to your system. Johnson’s offense can still work, but it isn’t going to fool conference foes quite as well as it used to; you have to beat them by executing really well.

The good news: in terms of average Composite rating, Johnson just signed his best class since 2012. It bumped his three-year average back up to the 0.84 level. Even better news: he’s got experience at QB again, and he just made his most intriguing defensive coordinator hire yet.

Maybe the ACC has caught up. Maybe his stuff just doesn’t work as well as it used to. But he’s had a pretty good offseason (and that’s before we even talk about the impact of Tech getting out of its Russell Athletic deal), and he’ll have a chance to prove those maybes wrong.

Offense

2017 Georgia Tech offensive radar

Experience matters, too. And Tech entered 2017 with very little of it.

The Yellow Jackets were replacing longtime starting quarterback Justin Thomas with Taquon Marshall, a converted running back with 16 carries and no passes to his name. The top two fullbacks (B-backs) were gone, and one (Dedrick Mills) was dismissed right before the season began. The leading non-QB rusher was untested sophomore B-back KirVonte Benson.

The QB-BB combo is the heartbeat of Johnson’s spread option, and there was no built-in rapport. It was a miracle that Tech maintained its efficiency (42.6 percent success rate in 2016, 43.7 percent in 2017).

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Georgia Tech
KirVonte Benson (30) and Qua Searcy (1)
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Not only were Marshall and Benson new to their roles, but the Tech line was a shuffled mess. Only two linemen — both sophomores (guard Parker Braun and center Kenny Cooper), no less — started all 11 games, and seven started at least one. Because Braun and Cooper are good, there was still some room up the middle. But the tackles were young, and Marshall didn’t have a pocket presence. The result: drops from 87th in passing success rate to 130th (dead last in FBS) and from 91st in Adj. Sack Rate to 126th. Thomas had completed 53 percent of his passes in 2016; Marshall completed just 37 percent last year.

Plus, either because of his own tendencies or the weakness of Tech’s tackles, Marshall wasn’t very fond of using the pitch. The slot back (A-back), long the primary source of explosiveness, got fewer opportunities than ever. And without opportunities for the A-backs or the receivers, Tech’s explosiveness vanished. The Ramblin’ Wreck fell from third to 85th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your successful plays).

The result: a mediocre offense for a team reliant on its offense.

2017 Georgia Tech offensive efficiency & explosiveness

The 2018 offense will have nearly all the continuity that 2017’s offense lacked. We don’t know how much improvement to expect from Marshall, but we should see the best possible version of the senior. Plus, Benson and exciting sophomore B-back Jerry Howard (7.6 yards per carry) return, and if Marshall’s more capable of working through his progressions, the return of last year’s top three A-backs — seniors Qua Searcy and Clinton Lynch and junior Nathan Cottrell (8.2 yards per carry) — could help.

Six linemen with starting experience return, too, including Braun, guard Will Bryan (23 career starts), and, if healthy, Cooper. (Cooper injured his leg in the spring.) Left tackle Jahaziel Lee is back, too.

In terms of pure experience, the only question is at wide receiver, where Ricky Jeune departs. Jeune had 25 of Tech’s 43 receptions last year, and only two returning wideouts caught even one pass (Brad Stewart and Jalen Camp combined for five receptions and 148 yards).

Most of these pieces — Marshall, Searcy, Stewart, Braun, Bryan, plus right tackle Andrew Marshall — clear that 0.84 Composite rating bar. So do younger players like sophomore AB Xavier Gantt, sophomore WR Stephen Dolphus, and a couple of quarterbacks (redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver, true freshman James Graham).

One potential problem: Marshall’s likely top backup, Lucas Johnson, had preseason surgery after a non-contact injury in a scrimmage and could miss the year. [This preview’s been updated to note his status.]

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia
Nathan Cottrell
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Georgia Tech defensive radar

A lot of things went wrong for the offense last year; for the Tech defense, things just ... went. The Yellow Jackets were as mediocre as they have been. They were slightly better against the run and slightly worse at preventing big pass plays, but the formula was the same: play bend-don’t-break defense and hope your opponent screws up.

2017 Georgia Tech defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Ted Roof’s five seasons as coordinator produced strikingly similar results, and Johnson finally elected to attempt something new, bringing in successful Appalachian State coordinator Nate Woody.

Maybe the most frustrating part about the Roof defenses is that recruiting hasn’t been all that bad on D. Tech’s projected defensive two-deep has an average Composite rating of 0.853, similar to a top-40 class. Using a 3-4 structure similar to Roof’s, Woody produced three consecutive top-40 finishes per Def. S&P+ (40th in 2015, 27th in 2016, 24th in 2017), but Tech hasn’t finished in the top 40 since Johnson’s first season.

The biggest difference between Woody’s and Roof’s 2017 defenses: disruption.

  • Havoc rate ranking: App State 15th, GT 109th
  • LB havoc rate ranking: App State 25th, GT 120th
  • DB havoc rate ranking: App State 13th, GT 77th
  • Adj. Sack Rate ranking: App State 41st, GT 116th
  • Stuff rate: App State 48th, GT 113th

There’s nothing saying Woody will find attacking options that Roof did not, but it’s easy to see why extra disruption would be a good thing. Tech lost both the field position and turnover battles last year, putting extra pressure on an unripened offense. If Woody can raise Tech’s havoc rate to average levels, that could create enough extra turnovers and three-and-outs to flip the field for a more experienced offense.

NCAA Football: Jacksonville State at Georgia Tech
Anree Saint-Amour
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

That would be easier if most of Tech’s 2017 disruptors were still in uniform. Of the top eight defenders in terms of havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles), only two return: ends Anree Saint-Amour and Desmond Branch. The top five tacklers in the secondary (all of whom were in that havoc top seven) are gone, as is end Antonio Simmons, who led the team with eight TFLs.

I love the Woody hire, but with this secondary, simply maintaining a top-60 level might be a victory. The best asset will be raw experience. Saint-Amour and Branch are seniors, and leading returning tackles Brentavious Glanton and Brandon Adams are juniors. The LBs will be led by a pair of seniors (Victor Alexander, Brant Mitchell), and there are couple of seniors (safety Jalen Johnson, corner Lamont Simmons) likely to start in the secondary.

The most exciting pieces could be youngsters. Woody will ask a lot of four-star sophomore linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling, and sophomore corner Ajani Kerr is the leading returning disruptor in the back.

Plus, Johnson redshirted three of 2017’s more touted freshmen (linebacker Gentry Bonds, DBs Tre Swilling and Kaleb Oliver) and is bringing in eight true freshmen with Composite grades of 0.85 or higher.

For years, rumors of Johnson’s impending retirement have swirled, but if he sticks around (both because he chooses to and is allowed to), it will be interesting to see what a Johnson-Woody partnership could do.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech
Ajani Kerr
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Tech went from 3-1 to 1-3 in one-possession finishes last year, in part because of the sudden disappearance of big plays. But special teams didn’t help. According to Special Teams S&P+, the Jackets lost about 1.5 points per game in falling from 22nd to 103rd.

That’s what happens when you turn your unit over to freshmen and sophomores, I guess. Freshman punter Pressley Harvin III very much held his own (44.1 average, 17th in punt efficiency), but a pair of young kickers (Shawn Davis, Brenton King) combined to miss a pair of PATs, go 1-for-3 on field goals longer than 40 yards, and rank 125th in kickoff efficiency.

They’re all back, as are Cottrell and Stewart in the return game.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Alcorn State NR 35.8 98%
8-Sep at USF 56 -1.5 47%
15-Sep at Pittsburgh 45 -3.6 42%
22-Sep Clemson 3 -19.4 13%
29-Sep Bowling Green 97 12.4 76%
5-Oct at Louisville 29 -8.2 32%
13-Oct Duke 40 0.3 51%
25-Oct at Virginia Tech 21 -10.5 27%
3-Nov at North Carolina 51 -2.8 44%
10-Nov Miami 13 -11.4 26%
17-Nov Virginia 73 6.8 65%
24-Nov at Georgia 6 -21.1 11%
Projected S&P+ Rk 53
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 40 / 65
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.5 (33)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 48 / 49
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / -1.6
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 59% (66%, 52%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.8 (-0.8)

Johnson will turn 61 in August. His place in college football lore is safe, and with Tech bringing in a new athletic director, the inclination is to assume he rides off into the sunset soon.

Still ... he’s only 61. Depending on his relationship with said new AD, it feels like this year could see a pivot toward another run. I’m not sold on Marshall just yet, but he could be pushed by younger QBs, and in 2019, Tech could return its best B-back (Benson), best A-back (Cottrell), and three to four starters on the offensive line. And while there will be plenty of seniors on defense this year, there’s a chance Woody finds a disruptive class of sophomores.

It’s also easier to look toward 2019 because the 2018 schedule isn’t conducive to a high win total. Tech is projected 53rd in S&P+ and is a double-digit underdog in four contests. Even if the Jackets overachieve their projections a bit, you’re still probably only looking at about a 7-5 record. The future could be reasonably bright, but that’s only if there is a future.

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