Tech debuted it to great effect against Duke in the second game of the 2013 season, a 38-14 win, but used it sparingly the rest of the season.
“It gives you a little better (blocking) angles sometimes, especially if you’re trying to get linebackers,” Johnson said at the time. “You’ve got a little better run and go at them coming downhill. It also doesn’t hit as fast, so there’s tradeoffs both ways.”
Ultimately, Johnson decided that running the offense both from under center and out of the shotgun was counterproductive.
“I don’t think you can do hodgepodge,” he said last year. “It’s just my opinion. You try to find something that you can do and get good at it and be better at it than (your opponent is at defending it).”
To Johnson, for his run-heavy offense, the shotgun is inferior to having the quarterback under center. When he made the comment in 2013 about the tradeoffs, it seemed he may have already recognized that, for his scheme, the shotgun was easier to defend than his preferred style.
“I’ve had several coaches remark – defensive coaches – that this hits so much faster than the gun stuff that you almost have to play it differently,” Johnson said last December.
The staple play of the offense – the triple option – is a different play from under center than out of the shotgun. When the quarterback is under center and the B-back right behind him, the mesh handoff happens virtually right behind the line, forcing the defensive end to commit to the dive or contain the quarterback.
That decision is what makes the triple option work. Based on whether the defensive end chooses between pursuing either the B-back or the quarterback, the quarterback gives or keeps, taking the end out of the play and creating an 11-on-10 advantage for the offense. But running it out of the shotgun – where the mesh point is perhaps five yards behind the line of scrimmage – gives the end more time and space to commit. A significant advantage is lost.
“I think in a league like the ACC, it’s more beneficial to go under center because you’re more likely to come up against an end who’s athletic enough to take the give and the keep from the shotgun,” said former Tech offensive lineman Trey Braun, who started eight games in the 2013 season and 26 in the two seasons after it.
The same would hold on a called run up the middle by the B-back or quarterback. With the quarterback under center, the quarterback and the B-back can hit the line more quickly, so the defense has less time to react, and the offensive line can do its job with a quick surge at the snap.
For Tech, the shotgun was a one-year experiment. Lee transferred after the 2013 season to James Madison, setting the stage for Justin Thomas to take the starting job. The Jackets returned strictly under center in the spring of 2014.
When it became clear in the spring of 2014 that the shotgun was not coming back, Braun approved, for the same reasons that Johnson prefers it, that it hits quicker and that Tech was not served by running two different schemes.
While it would be a stretch to conclude that it was the primary factor in the Jackets’ 11-win season that fall, it would also be disingenuous to say the two were unrelated.
Braun has taken note of the cry on Twitter and elsewhere for Tech to incorporate the shotgun. He has seen the line of thought that, if the primary offense (under center) isn’t working, then there should be an alternative offense available to try (the shotgun).
As Braun considers it, if the scheme that Tech devotes most or all of its time to perfecting doesn’t work, then it doesn’t logically follow that another scheme that gets less attention would be any more effective.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how football works,” Braun said.
Rather than a failing of scheme, he saw recent disappointing seasons for Tech as an indication of the improvement in the level of competition in the ACC.
“I do think the sentiment isn’t so much, ‘We should run shotgun’ than it is, ‘We need to win more games,’ which I agree with,” Braun said.
That said, having both schemes would not be attempting the impossible. Army and Navy have made it work. But Johnson likely won’t be joining them.
The season with the diamond “taught me if you do a lot of things, you ain’t worth an (expletive) at any of them,” Johnson said. “Which I’ve always known.”