He is the architect of a triple-option offense, a scheme much of the college football cognoscenti regards as a relic. For the last decade, it was like a stodgy exhibit in a musty museum, the athletic equivalent of a typewriter or carbon paper.
It worked just fine the last six years at Navy, where Johnson led the Midshipmen to five straight bowl berths for the first time in program history. Now he has brought it to Georgia Tech, where a legitimate question will be answered in coming years: Is the option still viable in a major conference?
“If we can execute the system, we can be pretty good,” Johnson said. “It’s been pretty good for a lot of years. That’s why I kind of scoff and laugh when people say, ‘This ain’t gonna work.’ It ain’t like we’re doing something that’s never been done. We’ve been doing it for 20 years. It’s worked at three different schools pretty good.”
The offense Johnson used to roll up a 107-39 record at Georgia Southern and Navy looks a little out of place in a world of pinball-like schemes and four-receiver sets. But line up the quarterback in the shotgun rather than under center, move the slotbacks closer to the wideouts and it suddenly looks a lot like the chic spread offense.
So maybe the issue is, “When will it work?” rather than “Will it work?”
As the offensive coordinator at Hawaii, Johnson needed just two years to help the Warriors win nine games and three seasons before they earned their first bowl berth in 38 years. Hawaii went from 3-8 to Aloha Bowl champs in two years in the mid-1990s with Johnson as offensive coordinator.
And after inheriting a Navy team in 2002 that was 1-20 the two years before his arrival, Johnson went 45-29 before landing in Atlanta.
There he will attempt to win with an offense that began dying out two decades ago and is now mostly the province of service academies. Once the college game’s dominant scheme, it began to recede once Miami carved up Oklahoma a few times in the mid-1980s. Coach Barry Switzer left the Sooners after the 1988 season, and the option was soon on the retreat.
“The one thing they don’t think about was name me one team Miami didn’t dominate in those years, no matter what they did,” Johnson said. “It didn’t matter what offense the other team was running. They had seven [future] All-Pro guys over there on defense, and they were pretty good at doing what they did.”
Sure, there were a few holdouts - notably Nebraska, which did rather well with Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green manning the backfield in the mid-1990s. But Tom Osborne retired, successor Frank Solich was forced out and the Cornhuskers hit bottom when Bill Callahan endured an ill-fated tenure after scrapping the option.
And so the option mostly withered away, with Navy one of its final outposts. The Mids played Duke and Wake Forest last season, and those defenses quickly found themselves flustered.
“The blocking scheme by far is one of the most annoying schemes I’ve ever played against,” Duke defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase said. “You have guys going for your knees every play. It’s not traditional man-on-man. They’re coming up to you head-first into your legs trying to cut you every play. You’ve got to change your whole ballgame to play against those guys. Now that Paul Johnson’s at Georgia Tech, we’re playing Navy twice.”
Added Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry: “I really think if Georgia Tech is not the first team on their schedule and they’re running the option, all I can say is, ‘Good luck.’ Pray for some flukes to happen. You think there’s a way to stop it, but there’s not.”
Imagine what it was like to be Georgia Tech defensive tackle Vance Walker and contend with it every day in spring practice. When the topic of the option was broached, Walker sighed and said, “Let me go ahead and explain it.”
The offensive line sets up in wider splits, which forces the defense to work in more space. Toss in the cut blocking that makes running to the short side of the field a workplace hazard for the defensive line, and there are serious headaches assuming everyone has mastered the option.
It also does something few other schemes can manage - make the sheer total of players available tilt toward the offense.
“If you run a regular play, you’ve got 10 blockers and a ball carrier,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. “They have 11 defenders. There’s always going to be one defender you can’t block. With the triple option, you read one guy and option the next guy. Now you have 10 to block nine, and now the numbers are working in your favor.”
Theoretically, it should be effective. Yet it has been out of vogue so long that at the very least, the Yellow Jackets’ results in the next few years could serve as a de facto referendum on the option’s future.
“This is kind of the litmus test of whether this offense is viable in the current age of college football,” Georgia Tech tackle Andrew Gardner said. “I think if Coach Johnson comes down and we’re successful this year or over the next few years, I think you’ll see some other colleges giving this type of offense a shot. If we flop and don’t do well and he gets fired in a few years, I think that’ll kind of squash the triple option at this level for a while.”
Johnson gamely attempts to hide some of his vexation with critics who can’t conjure up support for why they believe he will fail, even as often hears about such arguments. But his frustration about repeated questioning of something he knows will work is evident, and he curls up a slight grin when prodded on the subject.
“Can’t wait till we get to play,” Johnson said deadpan, prompting some chuckles.
With Johnson’s history, he’ll probably have the last laugh all too soon.