As we do from time to time here at THB, we exchanged questions with our sister site for Georgia Tech, “From the Rumble Seat.” Our responses to their questions are posted up on their site.
Jay Exum of THB was our questioner this week. Josh Brundage of From the Rumble Seat provided the answers.
Jay: After the 2014 season, people talked about Justin Thomas as if he were formulated in a lab to be a flexbone quarterback, and big things were expected from him coming into 2015. It seems as if he has only recently rounded into the shape that looked like it was imminent after the Orange Bowl win. What accounts for the improvement, or alternatively, what was the source of the struggle?
Josh: The 2015 season was an anomaly for the Yellow Jackets, as the offense turned over every skill position player and their star offensive linemen, sending 5 offensive players to NFL teams after the 2014 season. In addition to that, basically every subsequent starter went down with injury – I remember Coach Johnson remarking during an interview after the season that he looked out during our game against Miami in October and counted 8 (!) freshman on offense… we were starting walk-ons. The offensive line couldn’t have blocked a kitten by the end of the season. So the regression of 2015 Justin Thomas is mostly not on him. This season, all of those players forced into action are back, and we actually have some semblance of an offensive line. He’s playing much more to his potential, and he has been really fun to watch.
Jay: I wrote earlier this week about what seems to be an uneasy relationship between the Georgia Tech fanbase and Paul Johnson. With a new athletic director at the helm in Todd Stansbury, what do you think is the real-world likelihood of a change at the helm of the football program? And do you think there's as much division among Georgia Tech fans about Johnson as I perceive there to be?
Josh: The real-world likelihood of a head coaching change is zero – the athletic association can’t afford his buyout. We’re paying 2 basketball coaches not to coach, in addition to our current one, and Johnson’s contract won’t be affordable to even consider buying out of until 2018.
There is some division, but it’s just a vocal minority. Johnson and the flexbone have given Tech our best seasons since the 1990 National Championship, and he in general gets a pass for last season. The people calling for his head are the ones who think that a pro-style or trendier offense is what the school needs to run and is what’s holding the program back. We had that under the previous couple coaches and won 7-8 games every season. The offense isn’t the issue, and recruiting has been on the upswing the last couple seasons. We had disastrous recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013, and those kids are seniors now, so we’re still dealing with that as well. So there is some division, but if we beat Georgia at the end of the season, everyone will once again be unified behind him, as sad as that is.
Jay: Possible weird question: Georgia Tech is known chiefly for its engineering program. Engineering involves innovation and precision, both of which arguably are traits of the flexbone. I would think that an offense that tries to find a different way to build a mousetrap would have an especially strong appeal to an engineer's mind. Is there anything to that, or does it all go out the window on a Saturday afternoon, because engineering is engineering and football is football?
Josh: That’s a good question; I definitely think the offense fits the school, personality-wise. The offense is built on math and by optioning defenders in order to gain an extra blocker or two. It’s a creative way to move the football that’s reactionary – if the defense does this, then we do this. However, I don’t think your average Tech-student engineer is paying much attention to the X’s and O’s of the offense or could tell you the difference between a triple and midline option.
Jay: One of the criticisms of Johnson has been that the flexbone repels recruits, since it's not an offense used in the NFL. That makes some sense on the offensive side of the ball, but would seem irrelevant on the defensive side. Do you see any difference in the recruiting rankings of the defensive guys Tech gets versus the offensive side?
Josh: Recruiting has always been tough at Georgia Tech, regardless of the offense and whatever negative recruiting other coaches use against it. I don’t follow recruiting super closely, but off the top of my head, there’s not a star-ranking difference between either sides of the ball. If anything, our offense gets slightly higher-rated recruits than our defense. It seems it’s only in the last couple seasons that we’ve gotten higher-ranked D-line recruits.
Our last few recruiting classes are mostly 3-stars with some 4-star guys mixed in on each side. The offense has also sent a bevy of wide receivers to the NFL, but you wouldn’t know that if you hear Coach Cutcliffe at Duke talk about Johnson and the flexbone.
Jay: Speaking of defense, who are the emerging talents on that side of the ball, and what do the Yellow Jackets need to do to improve their defensive efficiency, especially in the pass rush? More generally, how do you see the direction of the program for the remainder of this season and going into 2017?
Josh: One of our godsends on defense this season has been Antonio Simmons stepping up at DE. He’s been by far our most productive lineman and has made some really good plays in the backfield. At safety, AJ Gray got a lot of preseason hype from the coaching staff, and is finally starting to show why the last couple games. He likes playing closer to the line, and he has been really disruptive on defense.
We’ve seen all season that this defense doesn’t get any sort of pressure with just rushing 4, so we’re going to have to be sending more in order to not leave our secondary hanging out to dry against Trubisky. Our much-maligned DC, Ted Roof, loves rushing 4 and playing super-soft coverage on the outside. Unless that changes soon, I see the offenses we face picking the Tech defense apart the length of the field.
We say all the time over at our blog that bend-don’t-break defense doesn’t compliment our offense as well. We would much rather see a more aggressive, disruptive defense that occasionally gets burned on the big play. Heading into 2017, I’ll be surprised if there’s not a change on the defensive coaching staff – something has got to change because it’s been the same thing over and over the last few seasons.
Jay: I have heard bits and pieces about a podcast Johnson did in October that caused some kind of kerfuffle. Can you give me the Cliffs Notes version?
Josh: First, excellent use of “kerfuffle.”
Basically, Johnson got very candid with a couple writers for the AJC and talked about how Tech is losing the arms race in recruiting. In addition to the academic restrictions he has to recruit against, we don’t have a waterfall in the locker room like Bama, or a facility with mini golf, barber shop, nap room, etc like Clemson, or 80,000 people to play in front of like all of the schools surrounding us. He’s been very open about asking for a larger budget to add more coaching assistants, but he hasn’t gotten it. We have an indoor practice facility, but our locker and weight rooms need updating as well.
He also called out a different AJC writer who seems to have a vendetta against Johnson and Tech the last few seasons – he cherry picks stats to make Johnson and Tech look worse than they are. In retaliation, that writer wrote 2 very negative articles where he did basically the things Johnson called him on… which Johnson then pointed out to him in person at his next press conference. Over at FTRS, we can’t stand that writer either, and have been writing response articles to him the last couple weeks.
It was as candid an interview as I’ve ever heard a head coach give, and it honestly made me like and respect him more. Despite the vocal minority, I’m very glad he’s our coach, and I think he’s a perfect fit for the school.