ATLANTA — During his first year as head football coach at Georgia Tech, Paul Johnson and his rare offensive system were the subjects of criticisms that came out of left, right and center field.
Some said the spread-option scheme had no way of working in a BCS conference such as the ACC. Although that offense had won national championships at Georgia Southern, it was OK for smaller programs, pundits argued. But against teams in the power conferences, it would suffer, they said.
Nine subsequent wins over mostly BCS opponents, and Johnson’s Yellow Jackets soundly nixed those concerns.
In 2009, Johnson’s second year, critics clamored that teams were just caught off guard the previous season. With ample time to prepare, they would be ready the second time around.
At last summer’s ACC Kickoff, Virginia Tech defensive back Kam Chancellor even told reporters he had found a tale-tell in the Yellow Jackets’ blocking schemes that let him know where they would go with the ball on a given play.
“If you watch film on Georgia Tech, you can see a couple of things that give (its offense) away,” Chancellor said last July. “It’s just the blocking schemes; that’s the main thing. Check the blocking schemes out, and you’ll see a couple of things.”
Whatever he saw didn’t work. Against a lower-ranked Yellow Jackets team on the road at Bobby Dodd Stadium last season, Chancellor and his then-No. 5 Hokies were burned for a 28-23 loss. They went on to lose the Coastal Division race to the eventual conference champion Yellow Jackets.
That brings us to this year’s ACC Kickoff, slated to begin with player interviews this afternoon in Greensboro, N.C. Now that Year 3 under Johnson is set to begin in the coming weeks, just what will the prognosticators, insiders and opponents say?
“Look out,” Georgia Tech starting quarterback Joshua Nesbitt said last week, coyly smiling.
His backup, Tevin Washington, was even more forthcoming with a response.
“They’ll say, ‘The third time is a charm,’” Washington said. “They’ll say we’re going to win a national championship this year, and Josh Nesbitt is going to lead us to a good year.”
Some have predicted a third-place finish — at best — in the Coastal Division for the Yellow Jackets, while others see them falling even lower. North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech are just too good and are returning too much talent, they argue.
But before Georgia Tech fans sound the alarm, Nesbitt wants them to fret not. He and his teammates have been here before.
“We’re always hungry,” he said. “We’re never picked to win anything anyway.”
Washington echoed that sentiment, recalling a wave of remarks last preseason that argued even if the Yellow Jackets made it to the conference championship, that they would be beaten.
“Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but, last year, I don’t think we were anyone’s choice to win the ACC, and we came out and won the ACC, so we’re just going to approach it the same this year,” Washington said. “Just take it one game at a time.”
During last year’s ACC Kickoff, attending media picked Georgia Tech to finish second in the Coastal Division to Virginia Tech. Among the 87 voters, nine picked the Yellow Jackets to win the division.
But back to Washington’s point of taking it “one game at a time.” According to Nesbitt, Johnson — the king of using the words “underdog” and “overlooked” for motivation — has preached this notion often this offseason.
“He let’s us know every time we talk, and that’s the type of attitude everybody needs,” Nesbitt said. “Every single time we go out, we need to prove someone wrong.”
Part of the reason many are concerned about Georgia Tech’s ability to repeat stems from the fact the Yellow Jackets lost four of their best players this offseason to the NFL draft.
Juniors Jonathan Dwyer (2008 ACC player of the year), Derrick Morgan, Demaryius Thomas and Morgan Burnett all left a year early to play professionally. Their absence ushers in more responsibility to fall on the shoulders of younger receivers and less experienced defenders, who will be part of a new 3-4 scheme. Taking Dwyer’s place at B-back will be former A-back Anthony Allen, a quick, hard-running back who starred as a freshman feature back at Louisville before transferring to Georgia Tech.
“I’m going to go into it, every game, with a clear head and not thinking of what could have happened if we had this person or that person, just go in and play,” Nesbitt said.
For the past two seasons, the Yellow Jackets have been told who they are not, rather than who they can become. That hasn’t affected their psyche, however. They’ve embraced it. As similar-sounding words likely to come their way this week in Greensboro, they will need to continue that philosophy.
“You approach it just like everything else,” Washington said. “It kind of humbles you knowing that everybody else feels like you can’t do something. So the whole time, you’re working to prove that you can be just as good or better than any other team in the country or in the same conference as you.”