This time next year, Michael Johnson could be one of the NFL’s richest rookies.
Georgia Tech’s senior defensive end, projected as a top 10 pick in the 2009 draft, won’t be required to report for a team breakfast each morning.
Right now, however, Johnson makes sure he follows every rule laid out by the Yellow Jackets’ new coach, Paul Johnson.
‘‘It’s cool,’’ Michael Johnson said Wednesday night. ‘‘That’s the way it should be. When he came in, you could see he was the head dog. The thing is that everybody was ready to follow him.’’
A more disciplined approach appears to be working as No. 22 Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepares to visit No. 19 North Carolina (6-2, 2-2) this weekend.
The Yellow Jackets, winners of four of their last five, lead the ACC Coastal Division despite preseason speculation that they would spend the season rebuilding.
‘‘Coach is so hands-on,’’ Michael Johnson said. ‘‘He came in stressing the points that we’re a team, not a bunch of individuals. That was the main thing.’’
Paul Johnson arrived at Georgia Tech from Navy, where his Midshipmen dominated the other service academies and went 43-19 over his last four-plus years. It didn’t take long for Georgia Tech’s players to realize that higher standards had arrived:
•The Jackets’ offseason conditioning program, which began with 6 a.m. wakeup calls, was so demanding that many players vomited during workouts.
•When spring practice began, players on the sideline were no longer allowed to kneel while others worked. Helmets stayed on unless coaches said otherwise, and all equipment was to be put in its proper place afterward.
•Anyone who arrived late for a meeting or skipped a treatment session would pay with physical exercise.
‘‘I firmly believe that guys want discipline,’’ Paul Johnson said. ‘‘They don’t know they do, but they really do. Everybody likes to get into a routine or a system, and everybody wants to know where the line is. You know, some guys will try to move it a little bit, but everybody wants to know where it’s at.’’
Quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running back Jonathan Dwyer agree their new coach has provided a strong foundation for success.
‘‘The rules are good for our team,’’ Nesbitt said. ‘‘Nobody’s getting a free ride.’’
Added Dwyer, who ranks second in the ACC with an average of 99.9 yards rushing, ‘‘We’ve all benefited from these guidelines. You can tell when it gets late in a game. We may not make every play, but we aren’t burning out, either.’’
Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich never cited a lack of discipline when he fired Chan Gailey as coach last December. The undoing of Gailey, who now works as offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, was almost entirely the result of six mediocre seasons and no victories against archrival Georgia.
Gailey had spent much of his career in the NFL as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys and as a respected assistant with Pittsburgh, Miami and Denver before he came to Georgia Tech.
By contrast, Paul Johnson has worked in college football since 1981. He led Georgia Southern to three straight Division I-AA national title games with consecutive victories in 1999-2000.
‘‘He’s more of a college-style coach,’’ Michael Johnson said. ‘‘We’re in shoulder pads three or four days a week. You don’t want to miss a class or something like that.’’
Paul Johnson doesn’t credit his approach entirely to his tenure at Navy, but the 51-year-old native of Newland, N.C., certainly borrowed some of the Midshipmen’s protocols.
‘‘I think young people function better when they know where that line’s at, and they know it’s not moving,’’ he said. ‘‘You’re going to have to stay within those parameters because it’s not going to change. A lot of guys who wanted that to begin with, maybe they might feel like they’ve got a little accountability or whatever.’’