One of the more intriguing elements of Georgia Tech’s option offense is its potential to break a huge gain out of a seemingly pedestrian triple-option play or toss to an A-back. When blocked and executed right, any play in coach Paul Johnson’s playbook can gash a defense.
This season alone, Yellow Jackets fans have seen it with backup quarterback Tobias Oliver having two runs of 60 yards or more – tied for third nationally – despite only having a total of 54 carries. From 2013-17, Tech broke a play of 40 yards or more once every 44 snaps. For Duke, Tech’s opponent Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the rate was one every 76 plays.
But Tech’s offensive resurgence in the past two games has been catalyzed in part by an acceptance that not every play has to break so dramatically. The Jackets have reduced their potential to pick up a huge gain, which sometimes brought the risk of miscommunication and fouled-up execution, in exchange for an increased likelihood that the play will be run effectively.
That switch has been elemental in the simplification of the offense that Johnson and Jackets players have described.
“Less contingencies for each play and a willingness to run it only to get five or six yards, as opposed to always looking for that perfect play,” left guard Parker Braun told the AJC. “I think that’s really important because if we stress about, ‘Oh, we need a 40-yard gain right here’ or ‘We need a score in the next few plays,’ that’s not really what the offense is designed to do.”
Typically, the offense has two options on how to block a play based on how the defense aligns. But the line calling out a change also means adjustments for other players, as well.
A change in blocking assignments on the line “tells the B-back to do something else, too,” Braun said. “So (Johnson) didn’t really want us to mess up any other position groups like that.”
Following the simplification of the offense after the team’s 49-21 loss to Clemson, Johnson said on his radio show that veteran linemen were outsmarting themselves by changing their calls at the line and were making things harder on themselves.
As Johnson put it this week, “We took away some calls, and we just kind of play. Go out there, come off the ball, play fast.”
Before the simplification, A-back Clinton Lynch said that there were problems with players not knowing assignments as the defense shifted pre-snap and plays were checked. The change has given players greater confidence and certainty in their assignments.
“I would say everybody’s more relaxed now in just knowing their job,” Lynch said.
Braun gave an example of a play from the win over Louisville on Friday. Braun said that, the way the offense was to block a particular run play, the backside safety would not be accounted for, meaning he would be free to make the tackle. But, where a call might have previously been made to switch blocking assignments to get the safety blocked, Tech stuck with the original call. With all 11 players on the same page, it still turned into a solid pickup.
The simplification has eased some of the burden on quarterback TaQuon Marshall. At the same time, Johnson has worked with him to improve his fundamental play – such as making the correct read on option plays, cutting upfield sooner and pitching the ball safely to the A-backs – and tried to clear his head. Johnson felt that Marshall was forcing plays.
“Worry about things you can control,” Johnson said, paraphrasing his message to his quarterback. “Focus on what you can control and let the noise and let all the other stuff go, because that’s all it is. You can’t control it.”
Marshall recognized that perhaps he was trying to do too much, bearing the responsibility placed upon him as quarterback and captain.
“Just trying to make too many things happen,” he said. “I think I calmed down a little bit. My nerves are down a little bit. More just trying to go out and have fun and play because it’s my last go-round.”
To Braun, the difference in Marshall has been perceptible.
“Just different vibes from him,” Braun said. “And it feels more like Tennessee last year.”
The Tennessee game, you’ll recall, was Marshall’s starting debut, when he ran for 249 yards (the most ever by a Tech quarterback) and a school-record five touchdowns as he nearly led the Jackets to a win in the 2017 season opener.
The results have been startling. Not counting clock-killing possessions at the end of both the Bowling Green and Louisville games, the Tech offense has scored 16 touchdowns in 18 possessions. In the past two games, the Tech offense has had two fumbles and one (post-play) penalty. In the first four, the numbers were 14 and eight.
“Offensively, they’re maybe as good as I’ve seen them,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who has opposed the Jackets for the entirety of Johnson’s 11-season tenure.
Cutcliffe will get a firsthand look Saturday, and he’ll bring a defense significantly better than Bowling Green or Louisville’s. It will be a severe test for both sides.
“I think everything’s going the way we want it to go,” Marshall said. “I think everyone knows what they’re doing. We’re keeping it really simple right now, so it’s kind of hard to mess it up.”
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