A conversation with the freewheeling Paul Johnson

A conversation with Paul Johnson can take many turns. A 40-minute audience with the Georgia Tech coach this week explored highways, byways and points in between. Hang on for the ride.

Q: There are some Tech fans who believe, with the hire of Mike Bobinski from Xavier, that football in some way is going to be de-emphasized at Tech. Do you in any way feel your program is going to be de-emphasized?

A: No, not at all. … Through my dealings with Mike so far, everything has been great. I’ve seen nothing that would lead me to believe that there’s less interest in the football program than there was before. In fact, we’ve been able to add some staff to try to catch up, which has been good. … We’ve added in the recruiting area. We’ve added two full-time guys and an intern.

Q: On signing day, you said you wanted to expand Georgia Tech’s recruiting footprint. Has that happened?

A: We’re probably more spread out than we have been. We’ve gotten a little further north. We’ve actually re-emphasized (and) changed up the areas in Florida a little bit. We’ve gotten back into Alabama pretty hard — and Ohio. So yeah, we’ve kind of broadened out. We’re going to have a much bigger (signing) class, so we need to.

Q: I know this is not your favorite subject, but do you feel that recruiting needs to improve?

A: I wouldn’t say that it’s not my favorite subject. I think there’s a huge misnomer out there about recruiting and the way it’s done and the way it ranks. I think the way you evaluate recruiting is how many games you win. You always want to win more games. But it’s like I said at the end of recruiting this year: You can take those (rankings) and think anything you want. … If you took our class last year and did it by average stars, we were probably right in line with where we always were. Now, do you hope to get better? Hey, you want to get better at everything you do.

Q: You were 20-7 the first two years here, 21-19 the past three. Do you feel the program has declined?

A: No. If you go back and look at the last 50 years, there probably wasn’t a lot of times they’ve won 20 games in two years. We won eight games two years ago. Last year we dug ourselves out of quite a hole. … When you’re front-end-loaded like that, we either win the thing in that first month or we dug ourselves a hole. We fought back and got into the championship game. People can say, “They backed in,” all they want. We won. We were 5-3. We tied for the division. It so just happened that the other two teams weren’t eligible.

Q: You beat Georgia in 2008, but the gap seems to have broadened over the past four years.

A: I wouldn’t say that. I’d say the last two years, maybe. Three years ago we miss an extra point (to tie). … I don’t know if you could have a much tighter gap than that. … The ’09 game here, I don’t think anybody could say that was a wide game. There’s no excuses, (but) we had a ton of stuff going on that week that nobody knew about.

Q: You’re speaking of the NCAA investigation involving Demaryius Thomas.

A: Uh-huh. And all that was going on. I think you have to give Georgia some credit. The last two years they’ve been pretty good. They’ve been a top-five team. Again, if you go back and look, when was the last time Georgia or Tech had won when the other was a top-five team? Like maybe never?

Q: With a new quarterback and a new defensive coordinator, is this a year when you think, “Maybe we can get back to winning eight or nine games?”

A: Well, we’re one year removed from winning eight games. … I got a real kick out of last year when we started out so poorly, you didn’t count the first half of the year before, but we count whatever we can do to make the numbers look the worst. To me, there’s a body of work, and you look at the whole body of work.

Q: Do you think your talent is enough to put a team in the top 20 or the top 10?

A: Yeah. Had we beaten Virginia Tech and Miami last year, we would have probably been there. We lose both games in overtime and lose leads in the fourth quarter, not to mention losing a lead at Clemson in the fourth quarter. Did we throw some stinkers out there? Yeah. The Middle Tennessee State game was embarrassing; it was awful.

Q: It’s believed that Ted Roof, the new defensive coordinator, and Mike Pelton, the new defensive line coach, are more in line with your temperament, which is …

A: Aggressive? I think that’d be fair to say. I think they coach effort and intensity, which is the way I feel you have to play.

Q: When you look at Vad Lee, do you see a quarterback who’s capable of throwing it at a level better than you’ve had since you’ve been here?

A: Oh, I think all the quarterbacks are probably capable of throwing, from just a strict ability standpoint. But as I’ve said a million times, there’s a lot of things that go into that. … What you’ve got to find is what gives you the best chance to win and what your coaches can teach. The thing that always made me want to laugh is people thinking that one week if you ran the BYU offense and the next week you run what we did, the other team would have no idea. Yeah, and neither would you.

Q: That’s true. Be interesting to see, though.

A: And what happens, because of the nature of what we do, is that any time you don’t win every game or score 45 points every game, it’s because you can’t throw the ball or you can’t do this or you can’t do that.

Q: I hear the same thing you hear: When Tech doesn’t win, it’s because of the offense. If you check the numbers, that has been true a few times, but it hasn’t been true very often.

A: The thing people don’t realize is that it’s a team game. … We haven’t been able to win any of those (low-scoring) games. … BYU stoned us (last season), but we also got behind because they were scoring every time they got it. I remember when our team was 6-0 and we went to Virginia (in 2011): We could never get the ball. The year Georgia beat us here (in 2009), we couldn’t get the ball. That’s what we normally do to other people.

Q: The game I recall you winning when the offense didn’t do much was your first ACC game.

A: Boston College the first year. Jonathan Dwyer took a pitch on a long run. Defensively they kept turning the ball back over to us and stoning Boston College. … The first year, the defense held us in some. And the defense played really good in the bowl game (against USC last season), and the defense played fairly well the second half of the ACC Championship game (against Florida State). There have been spots. What you’d like to have is a little more balance. You’re going to have to win some games 41-38, but you’d also like to win some 17-14.

Q: Why did Al Groh not work out as defensive coordinator?

A: I don’t know. I don’t even want to rehash it. Al’s a smart man, but it just wasn’t working. It’s probably better just to leave it at that. The results speak for themselves.

Q: You led Virginia Tech inside the final minute on Labor Day. If you win that game, you probably beat Miami and Middle Tennessee and you’re looking at a 10-win season.

A: It goes all the way back to the (2011 Sun Bowl) against Utah with me. We should have had it. It’s fourth-and-15. Twice. And we’re in press man (coverage). I mean, come on. Did we keep the ball on offense? No. We did manage to go down and miss a field goal at the end of (regulation), but truthfully, hand to God, a 14-point lead with six minutes to go …

Q: You ought to win.

A: You’d like to hope, especially if you’re not out there throwing the ball and killing the clock. So we lose that game at the end. We played very poorly offensively at Virginia Tech — and we played a pretty good game defensively for three quarters — but when you score with (44) seconds to go and kick ’em out where they start on the 20, you think you’re going to win that game. … The Miami game was the same thing. We’re up (14) in the fourth quarter.

Q: That was a wild one.

A: We’re up seven; we’ve got the ball around midfield; it’s fourth-and-2. The kids want to go for it. Normally I’d go for it. But we’re coming off the game at Virginia Tech where we had played fairly well defensively for most of the game, and I’m thinking there’s not five coaches in America who would go for that. Everybody would punt you out inside the 10 and play defense with 1:40 to go.

Q: If you read the advanced-analytics football sites, they support going for it on fourth down.

A: It’s a feel thing. You play to your strength. … Had that game been later in the year and you had the pulse of your team — the whole (Groh) mantra had been, “This is the year we’re going to be good,” and “It takes me a couple of years.” And we go up to Virginia Tech and they turn out to be not very good offensively, but at the time you don’t know that. Coming out of the game I had my suspicions, but still I’m thinking I want to give my guys some credit. They played pretty good for three quarters, and maybe we’ve hit that span where this is going to be the strength of our team. Maybe we can play to them. But you never know. This team could be that way. We’ll find out when we start playing.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.