First things first: Don’t call it the “triple option.” The offense’s modern author will correct you.
“That’s a play. That’s not an offense,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson says. “We might run the actual triple option a few times a game.”
A year ago, Johnson was a favorite atop annual lists of coaches on the hot seat, in part because of a contract extension squabble with his employer, but also for his adherence to the option offense. The chatter around college football circles was that Johnson might even step down.
That didn’t happen. What did happen: Another season of 300-plus rushing yards per game, a top-15 scoring offense, a win over rival Georgia, an appearance in the ACC title game and a victory over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl to cap an 11-win season. Now Johnson and the Yellow Jackets enter 2015 as the favorites to repeat in the ACC Coastal Division. What hot seat?
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“It’s the misperception,” Johnson says. “People in the media or coaches want to say things to create an advantage for them. If you’re giving up a bunch of points and yards, best way out is to say ‘We don’t see anything like that offense,’ and ‘You can’t recruit to it,’ and ‘We only had a few days to prepare for it.’”
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No matter the current trend in college football offenses — spread option, hurry-up no-huddle, Air Raid — Johnson simply doesn’t care. He’s not changing. When asked why people denounce his offense for its “deception” while concepts like the zone read are celebrated for confusing defensive fronts, Johnson shrugs.
“You’d have to define who ‘people’ are,” he says. “I think that truthfully. ‘They’ve’ just had a hard time stopping it.”
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Due in large part to the effectiveness of the offense, Johnson has guided one of the most consistently strong programs in the nation since making the move from Navy in 2008. Under Johnson, Tech has finished lower than second in the Coastal Division only once in seven years. The Yellow Jackets have averaged 8.3 wins per season, and seven of the 10 best offensive years in school history have come under his watch.
That’s why Johnson believes critics attack the triple option … er, Johnson’s run-based option offense … on a false premise. And he bristles.
“There’s always been a misnomer about all our cut blocks,” he says. “It’s just (B.S.). If anybody wants to watch the tape, do we cut on the backside? Yeah, just like 50 percent of the teams in college football. But if you talk about it enough, you can get it outlawed; (and then) you don’t have to play against it.”
Johnson’s disposition matches his coaching scheme perfectly: Unconcerned with your opinion. When a young Johnson showed up in Hawaii as the new offensive coordinator in 1987, a quarterback named Ken Niumatalolo heard his teammates start to grumble.
“The communication was tough at first,” Niumatalolo says. “Here’s this guy with a thick Southern drawl and us with our Pidgin English accents. Still, you could tell he was an incredibly intelligent man who believed in what he was teaching.”
Johnson remembers that first season well: “That’s OK, they couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t pronounce their names.”
Niumatalolo knew why Johnson had come to install the run-option: Despite having NFL-level talent at key positions, the Warriors had grossly underperformed. In six of the next eight seasons, Hawaii would finish as a top-20 offense nationally.
“That’s when I was sold (on) the offense.” Niumatalolo says. “In that first year, I’m asking myself, ‘How does he take a team that lost key guys and we got better as an offense?’ There was no doubt in my mind it worked having played for him.”
Niumatalolo joined Johnson’s staff at Navy after his playing days and took over as head coach in 2007 when Johnson was hired at Georgia Tech. “If anyone had any doubts at all, the early ’90s here at the Academy changed that,” Niumatalolo says. “Week in and week out, being undersized and going against people we had no business playing. … I’d just look across the sidelines in certain games and think we were going to get beaten badly, then you’d ask yourself ‘How are we scoring points on these guys?’ You just couldn’t help it.”
Current Army head coach Jeff Monken is a Johnson disciple who learned the offense while on the staff at Navy from 2002-07. “My first impression was that it worked,” Monken says. “It worked, and we could always adjust to what a defense offered. We didn’t find a situation we couldn’t work to overcome, regardless of the perception of talent on the field.”
Despite Johnson’s growing success as a head coach — first at I-AA Georgia Southern, where he won multiple national championships, then at Navy — critics still refused to believe that he would win in a major conference. And if he stole a few games grinding on opponents, he certainly wouldn’t be able to recruit Division I-caliber players.
“Never been a problem,” Johnson says. “We’ve never had an issue recruiting players. That’s just a myth.”
Every time Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas catches a Peyton Manning touchdown pass, it helps Johnson combat negative recruiting from rival coaches at that specific position.
“When we got here, Demaryius was buried on the depth chart in a pro-style offense,” Johnson says. “We asked him to block, showed him what he could achieve. The proof is out there — look at Stephen Hill. Yet now coaches in our league are telling recruits if they want catch any passes (not to come here), and we’ve had more receivers go to the (NFL) than his program. Recruiting is about the player, not the offense. You do have to find the right player for this system. And I do think that there are players out there who, if you asked, ‘Do you want to catch 100 passes or do you want to win?’ there’s some that just want to catch passes.”
So if Johnson has proven that offensive efficiency and recruiting haven’t suffered while running an option attack at the game’s highest level, why aren’t more schools running this offense? After all, there are plenty of programs running the hurry-up, spread attacks that former high school coaches Art Briles and Gus Malzahn introduced into college football in the last decade.
Monken believes others have taken notice and incorporated the concepts to the point that they are not that unique anymore.
“I’m not sure there’s a tactical advantage anymore because there’s some form of option in so many offenses,” Monken says. “So many schools have so many good athletes that are so well coached. I think that while it’s very effective, I don’t buy into that there’s a tremendous advantage anymore.”
But Johnson and his two former assistants, Monken and Niumatalolo, are alone in proudly announcing their intentions to use the “run-based option” at the FBS level. It may be hard to sell what many perceive as old-school football to fans, but Johnson knows that fans respond to winning more than anything.
“Fans learn to understand,” he says. “I think we had an identity at Georgia Southern. The kids believed in it, and the fans believed in it. No one was more disappointed than their fans when they got away from (the offense) after we left.
“But that’s just football. By the time I left Hawaii, fans were sick of it. They kept complaining about wanting to pass the football. Then years later when June (Jones) has them going run-and-shoot, I hear fans saying they wished they’d run the ball more.”
The fans at Georgia Tech might be singing a different tune in the future, but for now, the vast majority of Yellow Jacket faithful are just fine with Johnson’s option-based attack.
After all, who doesn’t like to win?
–By Steven Godfrey, SB Nation