by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It’s a headline that we've seen before.

Look for Georgia Tech to open up its offense this fall.

If we had a dollar for every time an option-based offense has boasted about having an improved passing threat for the upcoming season, we’d be rich. It was a rite of summer for Kenny Hatfield to say as much during his days at Rice, as it was during Fisher DeBerry’s days at Air Force, indeed all of the way back to Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners, Darrell Royal’s Texas Longhorns, and Pepper Rodgers’ UCLA wishbone sides.

Georgia Tech HC Paul Johnson likes to play that game, too. And while partly making good on the same promise made at this time a year ago, when the smoke eventually cleared last year’s Yellow Jackets were only slightly less landlocked than they had been the year before. In 2010, Tech ranked 119th nationally in passing; the Ramblin’ Wreck improved all of the way up to the No. 112 passing team last year.

And, entering 2012, here we go again in Atlanta. Paul Johnson is once more talking about an improved aerial threat for his option-based Georgia Tech side.

Although by now we have learned to take these statements in context, Johnson might not be bluffing this time. ACC sources say that Tech indeed wants to expand its aerial dimension this fall.

As for Johnson’s teams at Navy and Georgia Tech, they’ve mostly done just fine sticking to the same recipe of ground-based football. The Johnson editions that have been able to develop modest yet sneaky pass dimensions, however, have usually fared better than his sides that didn’t.

Which is why we somewhat take Johnson at his word this summer, especially since sr. QB Tevin Washington improved his TD pass production 550% last season, from 2 TDP in 2010 to 11 TDP a year ago. We don’t expect another 550% jump in TD passes this fall (imagine Washington tossing for 61 scores?), but Washington displayed enough progress last fall to suggest that maybe Johnson isn’t pulling our chains this offseason.

Still, Tech fans don’t seem to mind (at least yet) the ground-gobbling Johnson offensive style because the Yellow Jackets have been winning ever since the ex-Navy HC arrived in 2008. Tech has been “bowling” each year since, winning the ACC and qualifying for the BCS Orange Bowl during the 2009 campaign. While Johnson’s Tech ranks near the bottom of passing numbers each season, his option always has the Jackets near the top of the rushing stats, with 2011 no exception (Tech ranking 2nd, at 317 ypg, behind only Army’s wishbone).

So it goes in Atlanta, where Tech games remain a celebration. Close by downtown, Tech’s campus and Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field are easily accessible from all parts of the Showcase City of the South thanks to its proximity to the North Street Station stop on MARTA. Game days are a real treat; a trip to The Varsity, the inimitable hot dog heaven a short walk from the stadium on the other side of I-75/85, is customary for thousands of Tech fans who frequent the city’s most famous eating establishment famed for its array of wieners; the prime adornment is chili, with this particular version a pulverized brew customarily served with stripes of yellow mustard across their tops.

We’re also partial to the slaw dog, with a heap of cole slaw atop the sizzling dog inside of a soft bun, and the time-worn lingo of this fast-food heaven; “PC” doesn’t mean politically-correct at The Varsity, instead signifying chocolate milk (“PC” abbreviates “plain chocolate”); “FO” denotes the delectable “frosted oranges” which are much like drinkable orange creamsicles. Yes, the “FOs” are as good as their description. Several dining rooms are encompassed within the facility, most with TVs tuned into college football action on Saturdays. Tens of thousands of hot dogs can be served on a Tech football Saturday at the North Street location.

In others words, make sure you stop by when in Atlanta; make double-sure when attending a game at nearby Tech.

(In case you’re in the area, there are seven locations for The Varsity in and around Atlanta, including a shiny new restaurant in Alpharetta and a venerable one that gets quite busy on Georgia Bulldog football Saturdays in Athens.)

While we have nothing but good things to say about The Varsity, we’re beginning to have a few doubts about the direction of the Tech program under Johnson. As there are for a small but growing percentage of Tech fans who are beginning to wonder if the Jackets can reach the top level and stay there with Johnson.

It is not lost on some longtime observers that Johnson’s Tech teams have somewhat leveled the past two seasons and might have even hit their ceiling a couple of years ago when reaching the Orange Bowl and BCS. Although Johnson is a shrewd schemer and offensive play-caller par excellence, there might be only so much he can do with an option-based offense against many of the speed-based ACC defenses that are a lot more mobile than many of the stop units Johnson would annually face when at Navy. Johnson's Jackets are also 0-4 in bowls.

Note that Johnson’s Tech teams are barely above .500 (14-12) the past two seasons. Though Johnson is not in any immediate danger, it appears as if the program has been treading water lately. Johnson could use another big year, like 2009, to solidify his status for the long haul in Atlanta.

Perhaps Tech delivers this fall.

We mentioned the improvements QB Washington (left) made a year ago, when he actually could put the ball in the air with some confidence. Indeed, in the early part of the season, Washington seemed to perfect that “sneaky” downfield pass dimension that Johnson’s best Navy sides (as well as the best Air Force option versions) have been able to implement.

Washington displayed heretofore absent arm strength to stretch enemy defenses last year, although he tossed only 1 TD pass in the Jackets’ last seven games of 2011 after recording 10 scoring aerials in the first six games. Moreover, he accomplished most of that damage with big-time wideout Stephen Hill, who departed a year early for the NFL Draft, where he was taken by the Jets in the second round.

Spring work featured much more experimentation with the strike force than Johnson would usually allot in March. But the hints of opening up the offense (at least a bit) came in drills and scrimmages when Johnson utilized more formations and even implemented shotgun looks for Washington, although we saw few of the new wrinkles when it came time for the spring game (perhaps due to cluster injuries along the OL that prompted Johnson, his own offensive coordinator, to play things quite vanilla with the offense).

Johnson also spent spring giving extended reps to backup QBs soph Synjyn Days and frosh Vad Lee, who needed to get some added experience in case called upon this fall. Johnson added, however, that neither is yet the complete package needed for a QB in his offense. “Days is a really good runner and excels in the option game,” said Johnson, “while Lee is a better passer but needs to work on the option game to be a complete player.”

Still, the option is primed to explode this fall. Framing the expected fireworks is a forward wall that should be a strength. Four starters are returning, and the line looks especially formidable up the middle with C Jay Finch partnering with guards Will Jackson and Omoregie Uzzi, a two-time All-ACC performer. Though four starters were held out of the spring game with a variety of nicks and bruises, all should be healthy and ready to go for fall camp.

In a departure from past seasons under Johnson when the Jackets had 1000-yard RBs such as Anthony Allen and Jonathan Dwyer (now both in the NFL), Tech had none last year, with the backs led instead by the “B-back” (the “up back” in the option alignment) David Sims’ 698 yards. In fact, it was QB Washington who led Jacket rushers last fall with 986 yards and 14 TDs.

Sims, however, was learning a new position last year, with a steep learning curve in reading blocks and hitting the creases after moving from quarterback. But Sims (right, vs. Duke last November) can pick up the tough yards between the tackles, while explosive A-back Orwin Smith (10.1 ypc and 12 TDs in 2011; the highest ypc in ACC history for a back who has gained at least 1000 yards, with 9.7 ypc in his career!) is the homerun hitter.

Johnson, however, says that he will do more rotating with his A-backs, after 5'7 jr. Robert Godhigh outperformed everyone in March, and Deon Smith and Tony Zenon each made big plays in the spring game.

Replacing WR Hill will be a hurdle to overcome if Johnson is serious about expanding his passing game. None of the returning wideouts have caught as much as one pass in the college ranks, although jr. Jeremy Moore flashed plenty of upside in spring when he was the most consistent playmaker among the wideouts.

Defensively, we can say that the hire of ex-Virginia, NY Jets, and Wake Forest HC Al Groh as the defensive coordinator in 2010 has yet to work out as well as planned. The switch to Groh’s pet 3-4 looks haven’t delivered anything more than so-so results the past two years; Tech was right in the middle of national scoring defense rankings last season, at 60th place when allowing 26.1 ppg.

Thus, much like Johnson with the offense, Groh was doing some experimenting with his platoon in spring, tinkering with 4-3 alignments, and bending schemes to better fit some of the personnel on hand.

Groh is looking to generate more pressure on opposing QBs after his platoon generated only 22 sacks (ranking 77th in that category) a year ago. Added push from the defensive front is part of the reason Groh is toying with more 4-man lines; Groh doesn’t get much of that from mountainous 6'7, 347-lb. stay-at-home DT T.J. Barnes. But DEs Izaan Cross and Euclid Cummings have the potential to collapse the pocket, and Groh’s defenders were blitzing with impunity in spring, when jr. OLB Brandon Watts emerged and suggested he can become a three-down player instead of a mere situational pass rusher. Along with All-ACC OLB Jeremiah Attaochu (left; six sacks last year), Groh believes he has the fastest pair of starting outside LBs in his three-year tenure at Tech.

Meanwhile, RS frosh LB Jabari Hunt-Days, a 244-lb. wrecking machine and last year’s top recruit, opened eyes as a run stuffer in spring and likely starts at least for the first two games as jr. Daniel Drummond sits due to suspension for boating (boating?) under the influence. The suspension lasts for 1 ½ games but does include the crucial opener vs. Virginia Tech.

All four starters in the secondary also played extensively a year ago, when jr. Louis Young and sr. Rod Sweeting, Jr. (right, intercepting a pass at Virginia last October) emerged as a pair of lockdown corners. ACC sources say that jr. FS Isaiah Johnson, a big-hitting playmaker at 205 pounds, already has NFL teams interested. The Jackets’ pass defense (197.9 ypg, ranked 28th in the country) was the strength of the platoon in 2011.

Not to overdramatize, but the opener on Labor Day night at Virginia Tech has major implications in the ACC, as the winner of Jackets-Hokies has gone on to claim each of the Coastal Division titles since the league went to two divisions in 2005. Home games vs. Virginia and Miami (which has throttled the Jackets each of the past three years), and a trip to Clemson, also all take place before Columbus Day. We'll know by midseason if this could be a truly special campaign on The Flats.

Spread-wise, the word has gotten out on Johnson, who was a notorious overachiever vs. the line at Navy and his early days at Tech. Not so lately, however, as oddsmaker adjustments have contributed to Johnson's sub-.500 spread marks each of the past two years (5-7-1 and 5-8), and the Jackets dropped 7 of their last 8 vs. the number last season. Johnson was also just 1-3 as an underdog a year ago, although his teams are still 27-16 their last 43 as the “short” dating to his Annapolis days.

Summary...They’re getting a bit antsy in The Flats as Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets have slipped somewhat from their last ACC title in 2009. But the pieces are in place for a resurgence this fall, with a veteran offensive line, a senior quarterback, and a playmaker-laden defense. For all of the yards the Jackets are likely to compile on the ground, however, what will prove the difference between another minor bowl berth and a chance to return to the BCS via the ACC title game likely rests with QB Tevin Washington and the supposedly-upgraded aerial game. Replacing homerun WR Stephen Hill looms as a challenge, but Tech has been developing NFL-caliber wideouts galore for the past few years, and we suspect Washington will have his targets. Expect the Jackets to be a Top 25 team this year, and they immediately hop into the driver’s seat in the ACC Coastal if they can beat Frank Beamer’s VPI Hokies in a crucial opener at Blacksburg on Labor Day night.


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