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Johnson's system working just fine


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POSTED: Wednesday, November 04, 2009

ATLANTA » One of the most potent rushing attacks in the nation should have a very familiar ring to Hawaii football fans.

The spread option offense Paul Johnson now employs with devastating effectiveness at Georgia Tech is almost identical to the one he unveiled to Rainbows fans as UH's highly successful offensive coordinator under Bob Wagner from 1987 to '94. His success with that system in Hawaii helped launch Johnson's head coaching career and set the stage for his climb from relative obscurity to among college football's elite offensive minds.

“;They're very similar,”; Johnson said recently. “;We're probably more geared toward running the ball here at Georgia Tech than we were at Hawaii, especially in the early years, where we had better balance. We became more run-oriented (at Hawaii) over time.”;

Time is all Johnson has ever asked of his employers since becoming a head coach, because he's always believed in his system, even as critics consistently questioned whether it could work at the major college football level.

So far, so good.

Previous successful head coaching stints at Georgia Southern (where he guided the Eagles to a 62-10 record and consecutive Division I-AA national championships in his five seasons there) Navy and now at Georgia Tech offer proof that Johnson, 52, might have a pretty good grasp of what he's talking about.

“;Everybody has their opinions — it's like anything else, “; he said of the questions previously surrounding his offense. “;I've never doubted it. You'd never hear a coach say that (question the effectiveness of his offense), I don't think.”;

Johnson has a career coaching record of 123-44 over 13 seasons.

He quickly won over Yellow Jackets fans skeptical last year about replacing Chan Gailey with a coach who runs an old-school system that incorporates parts of the veer and wishbone in relying on pitches, misdirection and speed. Johnson quickly brought his players up to speed on the new offense and the new terminology that came with it. Georgia Tech went on to average 273.2 rushing yards per game in 2008 (fourth nationally and first in the ACC) and paced the conference in total offense at 372.5 yards per game.

That production explained how Johnson easily surpassed the low expectations he inherited by going 9-4 in his first season in Atlanta, snapping a seven-year drought against in-state rival Georgia, earning a share of the ACC's Coastal Division title and a berth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Johnson was the easy choice for ACC Coach of the Year and he also picked up his second career National Coach of the Year honor.

Mindful of the gem in its possession, Georgia Tech immediately rewarded Johnson with a new seven-year, $17.7 million contract upon the season's end. The new deal pays him $2.3 million this year with the possibility of more in incentives, making Johnson the ACC's second-highest-paid coach, behind only Florida State's Bobby Bowden at $2.4 million annually.

“;The future of Georgia Tech football has never been brighter,”; athletic director Dan Radakovich said at the time, “;and we are thrilled that Paul Johnson will be leading our program for a long time.”;

That optimism has proven to be well-founded, as the Yellow Jackets march closer toward a berth in the ACC championship game in Tampa on Dec. 5 and a possible BCS berth. In an era where the spread passing attack and other gimmick offenses such as the wildcat are all the rage, Johnson has remained true to his time-honored way of doing things.

Innovative wrinkles he consistently adds have made Johnson one of college football's best game planners and most feared tacticians, said ESPN's Mark Schlabach.

Schlabach was covering the game at Florida State on Oct. 10 when Georgia Tech exploded for 532 yards of total offense, including 401 on the ground, in a 49-44 victory that was the Yellow Jackets' first at Doak Campbell Stadium.

“;Our main problem was the wishbone — the kids just couldn't figure it out,”; Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said. “;We simply couldn't stop them. Forty-four points should have won that game.”;

Veteran FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews specifically cited one previously unseen wrinkle Johnson added that played a key role in the game's outcome. In putting his wide receivers in motion for the first time in a game, the Georgia Tech coach consistently created running room by moving the Seminoles safeties and linebackers responsible for the pitch man.

“;Even though (Johnson) has been doing this for 20 years,”; Schlabach said, “;he's always doing something new.”;

Last weekend's dismantling of host Virginia was Georgia Tech's first victory in Charlottesville since upending the then-top-ranked Cavaliers in 1990 and lifted the Yellow Jackets to 5-1 in conference play and 7-1 overall.

Ranked 10th in both the latest Associated Press poll and the BCS standings, they figure to be the overwhelming favorite for their remaining regular-season games against Wake Forest, Duke and Georgia.

“;I'm excited about where we are because we're still in position to achieve most of our goals,”; Johnson said. “;And, at the same time, I understand there are areas we need to get better in, as always.”;

He's understandably busier now than ever, but that doesn't mean he doesn't think about UH or keep up with Warriors scores as much as possible. Two of his assistants — Jeff Monken and Mike Sewak — coached with him at Hawaii, while another — Al “;Buzz”; Preston — played and coached at UH. Johnson's daughter, Kaitlyn, was born in Hawaii in 1993.

“;I really enjoyed Hawaii,”; Johnson said. “;It was a great place to live and, for the biggest part of the time, it was just my wife (Susan) and I. We had some really good teams and the fans were great. I really enjoyed my eight years in Hawaii. It was a lot of fun.”;