New opponent brings challenge for Tech, Johnson

Georgia Tech’s game against Syracuse began somewhere around late January.

Recently promoted from defensive coordinator, Syracuse coach Scott Shafer began to prepare for the season, including the Oct. 19 matchup with the Yellow Jackets.

“Obviously, that one was really important because you had to think outside of your comfort zone, outside of your box,” Shafer said, “take a look at a very unique offense and a group of coaches that really know what they’re doing under coach (Paul) Johnson.”

Johnson, on the other hand, had no such head start to ready for Shafer and the Orange. Because of the unorthodoxy of Tech’s spread-option offense, game video of a particular defense against a more common offensive system has limited value to Johnson and the offensive staff.

The most useful video comes from games in which an opponent’s defensive coordinator schemed against one of the few offenses similar to Johnson’s.

“You go back and look and say, ‘Hmm, they played so-and-so here and so-and-so here,” Johnson said, “but we couldn’t find any.”

Now in his sixth season at Tech, Johnson has built a bank of knowledge of schemes that ACC teams employ to defend the Jackets. Most teams do not change from year to year. Many coaches, believing that a normal game week is not enough time to prepare defenses for Tech, will devote time in spring practice and the preseason to rehearse the schematic principles involved in defending the Jackets’ offense.

Nonconference opponents or conference teams with new defensive coordinators can be a different case. Sometimes it’s not so difficult to find a link. When Tech played North Carolina last year with its first-year coach Larry Fedora, Johnson had faced Vic Koenning, North Carolina’s associate head coach for defense, when he was defensive coordinator at Clemson in 2008.

Elon, Tech’s first opponent of the season, is in the Southern Conference with Georgia Southern, where former Tech assistant Jeff Monken runs an offense similar to Johnson’s. The next step is getting a copy of the game video.

“You can get it,” Johnson said. “Everybody knows somebody.”

However, Johnson said, coming up empty and not finding any history against the offense “happens a lot.” In those instances, Johnson studies the opponent’s personnel and scheme and tries to formulate his own game plan.

“The way I always try to do it is (ask), ‘OK, if I were him, what would I do? How would I adjust my scheme to play what they’re doing?” Johnson said.

Having coached this offense for nearly 30 years, there is little that Johnson hasn’t seen. As he has often said, there are only so many ways to line up 11 players.

The Tech offense will practice against a couple of different possibilities, Johnson said, “and if they don’t play us (with) one of those two ways, then we like our chances.”

Shafer and defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough, meanwhile, did their homework. They watched Tech video and talked with coaches who have both defended the offense and run similar versions, taking bits and pieces to meld a scheme that best suits their own personnel.

They almost certainly watched Virginia Tech’s defense of the Jackets — Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster has gained a reputation as perhaps the pre-eminent expert on stopping the Jackets.

Shafer will get his turn against Johnson on Saturday.

“He’s as smart a coach as there is out there,” Shafer said. “We have a great challenge upon us.”