This will be Paul Johnson’s 10th season at Georgia Tech. He’s the longest-serving Institute football coach since Bobby Dodd, after whom the stadium is named. By now, we know what we’re getting with Johnson’s Yellow Jackets, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
We know that they’ll run his offense. We know he’ll fuss on the days they don’t run it well. We know his defense won’t stonewall anybody. We know he’ll fuss about that, too. We know his teams will punch above their weight, recruiting-wise. We know they’ll sometimes beat somebody they shouldn’t, and not often will they lose to somebody they shouldn’t. We know they’ll be in a bowl game. We know they’ll have a shot to win the ACC’s lesser division.
About here, you’re doubtless expecting a “but.” I’m afraid I’ve conditioned you that way. Allow me to surprise you. There’s no “but” coming. The Jackets under Johnson are what they are, and I mean that as a compliment. He has made it to Year 10 — that’s twice as long as Bobby Ross was here — by doing what he wants. This is his program in the way it was once Dodd’s program. The first thing you think about when you think of Tech football is Paul Johnson. Not the players, not the calculus requirement, not the Rambling Wreck. Him and his offense, in that order.
There are times, I’ll concede, when I’ve wondered if Johnson’s Way was the right way for Tech, if he (and it) had taken the Jackets as far as they were apt to go. I’m now willing to admit that, after nine seasons, an impressive baseline has been established. Let’s agree that the 3-9 of 2015 was the blip, seeing as how it’s sandwiched by the 11-3 of 2014 and the 9-4 of last season.
If you’re asking if I see the year ahead as a major retreat from last year’s strong finish, the answer is no. I think Justin Thomas, the best Tech player of those nine seasons, will be missed. I do not, however, think Johnson will be unable to find a quarterback to run his offense, for which finding a quarterback is more than half that battle.
On display in Friday’s spring game at the stadium named for Dodd were four quarterbacks who did nice things: TaQuon Marshall, Jay Jones, Lucas Johnson and Chase Martenson. There’s a chance none of them could take a snap against Tennessee on Labor Day in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Matthew Jordan, who oversaw the victory at Virginia Tech that changed the course of the 2016 season, is considered the favorite to ascend to No. 1.
The point being: At the most important position on any team and especially a team running this offense, Tech isn’t utterly reliant on one man. Other Johnson teams have had greater top-end talent; this one has something approaching depth. Of his quarterbacks, Johnson said, “They didn’t play as well as they’d played most of the spring,” and this wasn’t as one of his standard-issue gripes. This was meant as an affirmation.
Some Tech spring games — I’ve seen a few — are basically as a two-hour prelude to 20 minutes of Johnson kvetching. That wasn’t the case Friday. He liked a lot of what he saw. (As ever, he had a good view, standing in the middle of the field behind both offenses.) “Right now I feel good about three receivers,” he said. Then, going macro: “I think we had a good spring practice; I don’t get too hung up on the game.”
Back to the quarterbacks: “Tonight was good for those young guys, and even TaQuon because he hasn’t played a lot. TaQuon has played much better all spring than he played tonight. The biggest thing is when Matthew comes back, he’s got that experience where he’s played in games, and the other guys have got to gain that. Jay and (Lucas), they haven’t played. They redshirted last year; this is the first time they’ve played in front of a crowd. I thought Lucas handled it really well. He just plays and doesn’t let much bother him. The biggest issue with Jay tonight was ball security. That thing was all over the place.”
Then: “He was hurt. I didn’t think he was going to play. He was on crutches Tuesday. He was hell-bent that he was going to play.”
Understand: There’s no way Tech plays five quarterbacks next season; if it gets beyond two, something surely will have gone wrong. But one or two of these five should suffice. There are playmakers on the flanks — Clinton Lynch, Ricky Jeune, Jalen Camp and Georgia-slayer Qua Searcy — and Dedrick Mills could be Tech’s best B-back since Jonathan Dwyer. This offense should be fine. So long as the offense does its part, this will always be a tough team to play.
Let that stand as a capsule description of this coach and these past nine seasons: Under Johnson, Tech has been and remains a tough assignment. Some of that is because of his offense. Most of it is because of him. He’s an ornery cuss, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean it as an affirmation.