Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech athletics
For 11 years, Georgia Tech football was run by what may be considered a unique mind in Paul Johnson.
The former Navy head coach brought those triple option principles over to the Power 5 level, which he was able to sustain up until his retirement in 2018. In 11 years under Johnson, Georgia Tech made nine bowl games, won three ACC Coastal titles, the 2009 ACC championship and a New Year’s Six bowl. The Yellow Jackets finished ranked in the AP Poll three times during that span.
Following Johnson’s retirement, the Yellow Jackets’ program decided to modernize. Geoff Collins entered the program from Temple to convert the offense into a spread concept.
This is not a conventional change for an offensive scheme. It takes time not only to transform an entire playbook, but to establish the appropriate personnel.
As expected, Collins was unable to thrive right away, winning just three games in each of these two years. Nonetheless, there is still plenty of excitement around the Georgia Tech program.
In this feature, we look into this coaching change and what we can make of it so far. We analyze the specific challenges of the scheme change, how other coaches have dealt with it in the past, and whether it is justifiable to be optimistic about what Collins can do in Atlanta.
Transforming from the Triple Option
Johnson ran a flex-bone type offense, which featured a fullback behind the quarterback, as well as two slot backs who can come into motion. The reason it was so difficult to defend was the discipline it required, contrasting heavily from the offenses that most ACC teams were used to facing.
When Collins entered the program, his task was converting his roster into players who would play more conventional roles.
Some players, such as Tobias Oliver were so athletic that they could provide value anywhere on the football field. Oliver was a quarterback under Johnson and switched to outside cornerback this past season.
Others had more hardships making the transition. Their primary quarterback in 2019 was James Graham, who was recruited primarily to fit the triple option scheme. He was unable to consistently move the football throughout the season.
In 2020, Collins brought in a very highly-touted recruit in quarterback Jeff Sims. Sims showed plenty of flashes as the starter but was not able to immediately carry his team to vast success.
Like much of the rest of the offense, Sims was talented and capable but inexperienced. Thus, it is difficult to draw conclusions from overall results of the first two years on the offensive side.
Other Examples of This Transformation
There are not many recent power conference examples of the flex-bone scheme that Johnson used, but several coaches have used similar option styles in the past.
Rich Rodriguez’s Spread Option
At West Virginia, Rich Rodriguez used similar concepts to what was seen with Johnson. He utilized a mobile quarterback to make zone reads with tight ends in H-back type roles.
Even though Rodriguez’s offense still resembled the modern day run-pass option, the Mountaineers had struggles in the passing game after he left in 2007. The following year, the Mountaineers averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt — similar numbers to Graham in 2019.
Dan Mullen’s Zone Read
At Florida, Dan Mullen is primarily known for his four- or five-receiver sets. However, he relied on option-based run concepts at Mississippi State. This offense can somewhat be compared to Johnson’s because of how the wideouts were utilized as zone blockers.
They also had an inside runner from the backfield along with an outside runner coming in motion. When Mullen took the job at Florida after 2017, the Bulldogs’ passing offense struggled mightily the next two years, but finally turned things around in 2020.
Bob Davie’s Hybrid Wishbone
Although he used it in the Mountain West, Bob Davie’s triple option at New Mexico may be the most similar example to what Georgia Tech dealt with. This was another shotgun-based offense, but heavily resembled the wishbone. The Lobos parted with Davie after 2019 and their 2020 passing offense ranked 95th in the country under the new system.
The Bottom Line
What Collins had to do at Georgia Tech was unprecedented in the modern era of Power 5 football. Since coaches who entered programs with modified triple options had initial struggles themselves, it is only logical that the Yellow Jackets’ growing pains would be amplified.
The main question is what to expect in year three.
First, Georgia Tech’s defense must improve. Collins is a defensive mind and in 2020, the Jackets ranked bottom three in the ACC in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders. He certainly inherited a depleted roster on that side of the ball but Georgia Tech ought to improve in that respect in 2021.
Offensively, this is a deciding year for coordinator Dave Patenaude. Georgia Tech has established its long-term solution at quarterback and in the backfield. The offensive line and receivers continue to be a work in progress. Still, Patenaude must prove in 2021 that his unit can make significant strides.
It would be unnecessary to automatically put Collins on the hot seat, even if Georgia Tech once again fails to fully break out. The motto remains process over result. Collins can be judged more fairly — and harshly — in 2022.