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November 24, 2009

Q & A: Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson

You can call the triple-option flexbone offense of Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson old, antiquated and passe -- but you also must call it effective.

In just two seasons, Johnson and his unique attack have Georgia Tech on the brink of the school's first ACC championship since 1998. And just think: Many felt Johnson couldn't win in a major conference with this ground-pounding, misdirection offense.

Johnson debuted at Tech last season with a 9-4 record that included a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Perhaps his most impressive feat was a victory at Georgia, the Yellow Jackets' first over the Bulldogs since 2000. Tech will go for another triumph over Georgia this weekend.

This season, the Yellow Jackets are 10-1 and already have wrapped up the ACC Coastal Division. Johnson recently agreed to a one-year contract extension that pushes his deal to 2016.

Before arriving in Atlanta, Johnson and the flexbone thrived at Navy for six seasons. He was 45-29 at Navy, went to four bowl games and won six Commander-in-Chief trophies. The highlight of his tenure in Annapolis was a 46-44 triple-overtime win at Notre Dame in 2007 that ended the Midshipmen's 43-game losing streak to the Fighting Irish.

Johnson, 52, also enjoyed a stellar run as coach of FCS member Georgia Southern from 1997-2001. He went 62-10, advanced to the playoffs each season, played in three national title games and won two championships.

Rivals.com caught up with Johnson this week.

What are looking for from your team down the stretch?

We are looking for some inexperienced guys to play better and to play at a winning level. Just more consistently, regardless of our injuries. We have 11 guys out there. We need to play well. Just more consistency in how they play.

When did you know this potentially could be a special year?

I never thought that, 'Wow, this could be a special team.' We just tried to get ready every week and play. I guess once we got past Virginia Tech [on Oct. 17], that gave us a chance to get back in the conference race. Then each game was like a single-game elimination.

I didn't think anyone would win our division with two losses. I didn't have any idea Miami would lose three games in our league. I knew they had the tiebreaker on us. I felt like we had to win out to win, and we just kind of approached it that way. Now that we have won our division, we have a chance to have a special year.

Which part of your offense doesn't get enough credit?

[Wide receiver] Demaryius Thomas has really good numbers. And our passing efficiency is really good. We don't throw it much, but if you look at the efficiency, it's pretty good.

Are you pleased with the development of the defense?

We have been hot and cold. Some games, we have been tremendous. I think the last half of the year, we have gotten better. We are focused in and have cut back and dialed in on trying to get good at something, and we've gotten better at stopping the run. When you do that, at least you have something you can hang your hat on.

I don't know if people realize that we have just six scholarship seniors on the team. We are playing with 79 scholarships because we held some because we had to balance out the classes. If we didn't, we weren't going to be able to sign almost anyone this year. Then we lost three or four starters on defense fairly early this year, so it has been a little bit of a mix-and-match work-in-progress.

Which part of the offense still needs to develop?

We aren't where we'd like to be on the line of scrimmage. Not close. Not athletically, physically

What has made quarterback Josh Nesbitt so effective?

I think he has tremendous toughness. He is a fierce competitor who likes to win. He has made himself a good runner. He's strong, he breaks tackles. He's not going to run away from anybody. But he does break some tackles, puts his pads down and gets some tough yards. I just think he has gotten more comfortable with what he's doing. And I think he's enjoying it.

Is there a particular defensive scheme that gives you the most trouble?

You get a variation. It's not any one thing. Everyone has their own ideas.

Did you think success would come this quickly?

I just thought about trying to get better every day and taking it one game at a time and trying to win a game. I never thought about what success would be or thought, 'Hey, we have to get this number or that number of wins,' or anything else. We just kind of hit it head on and started working, and it's just kind of worked out for us.

Do you grow tired of answering questions about your scheme?

The biggest thing you get tired of answering is [that] as soon as you have a game that somebody plays good against you on defense well, that's it, that's the blueprint, it's over. It's like if you're running a conventional offense and somebody plays you pretty good, they just happened to play pretty good. That's probably the most frustrating thing.

Why do coaches say it's hard to prepare for this offense in one week?

I think they probably heard someone else say that. It's different. It's different than being able to put your hand down, run straight upfield and rush the passer. So many people have all of their zone blitzes and all of the things they're doing to stop different things, and a lot of that stuff isn't very good against what we do. It's just different, and they have to re-tool a little bit.

This offense is prone to fumbles. What do you do to try to limit them?

We work on ball security, but I'm not even buying the notion that they're going to happen. I don't think they have to happen any more than people saying interceptions are going to happen when you throw the ball. I just think you have to work on it.

What's the most important trait the quarterback must possess to run your offense?

I think it's like any offense -- leadership, being able to run the show. For us, we need an athletic quarterback, a guy who can run a little bit and throw. But I think there are a lot of those guys out there.

What was the appeal of coming to Georgia Tech?

I think I was ready for another challenge. I think we had about maxed out what we can do at the [Naval] Academy. I think if you get in the top 25 there, that's good. That's probably about what you're going to do. We felt like the ceiling was a little bit higher here. It was in a part of the country where we wanted to live. The school had a lot of history and tradition. If we were going to move, that was the time to do it.

Can you win a national championship here?

I think so. I think that the way the thing is set up now, you have to be awfully lucky. We could have won every game we played this year and still not had a chance to play for the national title. It's all where you start.

What do you need facility-wise to stay competitive?

I was just talking to the athletic director [Dan Radakovich], and we are in the process of seeing about getting an indoor facility. I'm encouraged. I think we have a chance of that happening. We are at a place where the weather isn't that big of an issue, but it would be nice for lightning. And there are days when we get some heavy rains, so it would be nice to be able to have a place where we can go inside.

Does the ACC get a bad rap?

I think you can make a case any way you want. If you look at the out-of-conference wins. I mean, Stanford has some big wins in the Pac-10 and Wake Forest beat them. Virginia Tech beat Nebraska, which won the Big 12 North. At this point, we are 2-0 in the SEC [with wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt]. Miami beat Oklahoma, and they have three losses in our league. You can go on and on. Every time someone points out that 'they' lost to William & Mary, the bottom teams did. But the teams in the middle and at the top also had some pretty impressive wins.

Were you happy to see Navy beat Notre Dame again?

I was really happy for them. That's great. Kenny [Niumatalolo] has done a really good job and kept it going. We talk some; I wouldn't say real often. We mostly text.

Would you like to see a playoff, considering your FCS experience?

I really would. We are the only sport that doesn't have a playoff in the NCAA. I'm not saying that for us this year because I don't even know how we are going to finish. I'm just saying overall. I wouldn't care if my team was 5-5 right now; I still think that it makes sense to have a playoff. When every other sport can do it, I don't know why we can't.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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