Questions abound as Georgia Tech searches for a football identity during a 2-2 start that doesn’t befit an ACC champion. Yet nobody seems to be posing this central query: Where’d Josh Nesbitt go?
The Yellow Jackets’ All-ACC quarterback is ahead of his rushing pace of a year ago and while his passing metrics have taken a beating, numbers don’t matter as much as nuance. The eye test says that Nesbitt has been sub-par and coach Paul Johnson is not arguing.
Asked if his quarterback is running the offense as effectively as last season, Johnson paused.
“Probably not,” he said. “Some games he plays really well, like at North Carolina. [N.C. State], he didn’t play well, but nobody did.”
As Nesbitt watched spring practice while recovering from ankle surgery, he requested to be called Joshua. So has changing his name changed his game? He doesn’t look the same.
At times he appears hesitant, unsure whether to keep, hand off or pitch the ball. His decision-making sometimes seems foggy.
Some pitches are mediocre, some fakes botched. Sometimes he covers up the ball and pulls his head in because he knows he’s about to get blasted when a play blows up.
“I have a lot of confidence,” said Nesbitt, who is averaging 90.5 rushing yards per game and 4.8 per rush with six touchdowns. Last season, he averaged 74.1 and 3.7 yards while scoring 18 times.
“It’s just that when the coaches tell you one thing and you go out on the field and you’re indecisive about it for that split-second, then the whole play is messed up," he said. "I’ve got to stay dialed in.”
Even though Tech has played two of its pre-supposed easier opponents and is averaging 320.5 rushing yards per game (compared to 295.4 a season ago), these Jackets are averaging fewer points (31 to 33.8). That’s traceable to reduced success in the clutch – third and fourth downs – to keep drives alive.
In those situations, where each split-second decision is magnified in importance, Tech has converted 44 percent on third downs and 42 percent on fourth, relative to 52 and 56 percent last season, respectively. Add in passing woes and there is, as Johnson recently said, tough sledding.
Nesbitt has made big plays, including a career-long 61-yard rush, but he’s made fewer clutch plays and decisions.
It might all be easier if his old pals were still around, especially Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Tech’s pass protection may be more erratic than last season and the top two playmakers beside him -- 1,400-yard rusher Jonathan Dwyer and 1,200-yard receiver Thomas – are in the NFL.
Nesbitt’s 46.3 percentage completion rate last season suggested that passing is not his forte. Thomas helped abate that by often wrestling balls loose from defenders.
That’s not happening so far this fall. Nesbitt has completed just 32.6 percent of his passes for 79 yards per game, 42 fewer yards per game than last season.
Tech also lost starting offensive linemen Brad Sellers, Cord Howard and Joe Gilbert to graduation or exhausted eligibility. Gilbert, now in graduate school, starts for Georgia State. Howard plays for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
All-ACC center Sean Bedford said, “As far as Josh goes, if you want to talk about confidence, a lot of that comes down to us [the line]. We haven’t blocked like we’ve needed to.
"We haven’t opened those holes, we haven’t given him the time that he’s needed, we haven’t given him the confidence he needs. I think we’re largely responsible.”
Johnson’s not arguing with that either.
“I think [Nesbitt] takes too much of a hit in the passing game,” the coach said. “He sails them sometimes. But a lot of times, he is running for his life.”
Everybody has a solution: make quick decisions right or wrong; believe in what you are; do it all faster. Bedford said coaches would rather linemen go full speed and miss than try to guess perfectly on who they're supposed to pick up on stunts.
Nesbitt’s goal is to get back to playing fast option football and worry later about whether it was perfectly played.
“You’re right, because if you go out there and be indecisive ... the ball might end up on the ground,” he said. “From my standpoint, it’s just about doing my job and depending on other guys to do theirs.”