Johnson quietly carving out legacy in shadow of Georgia Tech legends


Returning QB Tevin Washington racked up 2,638 all-purpose yards and 25 TDs last season. (Getty Images)  
Returning QB Tevin Washington racked up 2,638 all-purpose yards and 25 TDs last season. (Getty Images)  

ATLANTA -- John Heisman, Bill Alexander, Bobby Dodd, Bobby Ross.

What do these four men have in common? They were all very successful coaches at Georgia Tech. Heisman, Alexander and Dodd are all in the College Football Hall of Fame. All four men won national championships for the Yellow Jackets.

But none of them holds the school record for wins (33) in his first four seasons as head coach at Georgia Tech.

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That mark belongs to Paul Johnson.

Johnson, who won two FCS national championships at Georgia Southern and took Navy to five straight bowl games, is quietly beginning his fifth season at Georgia Tech with another team that will probably exceed the expectations of the "experts."

"We had a pretty good spring and we've got a chance to be better in some areas," said Johnson. "If our guys can get better this summer and do what we expect of them, we can be OK. We just have to wait and see how we do when we play the games."

Johnson has always been one of college football's most understated coaches because he believes that at the end of the day, what his teams actually do on the field is more important than what he says they'll do. Talking, he believes, is way overrated and not particularly productive.

"The game is about putting players in a position to succeed," said Johnson. "If you recruit good players and teach them consistently then you've got a chance to win."

Johnson's laid-back persona is also a factor of him being underestimated at just about every coaching stop along the way. In just 15 years as a head coach he has won 140 games (9.3 wins per year), including a 2-10 record in 2002, his first year at Navy. He has done it with a run-heavy option attack that has been labeled as a "high school offense" by his critics. And those are the kind ones.

But there is no arguing with the results. Georgia Tech won nine games in Johnson's first season in Atlanta (2008) and in 2009 the Yellow Jackets won their first ACC championship since 1990 (later vacated by the NCAA in a bitterly contested infractions case but that's another story for another day).

Over the past four seasons only Virginia Tech has won more ACC games than Georgia Tech.

"The two things that have always impressed me about Paul Johnson as a head coach are this firm commitment to what his team is doing and the competitive nature to which he operates," said Wes Durham, the long-time radio voice of Georgia Tech. "I guess when you've had people doubt your offensive concepts for 30 years that comes with the territory."

A year ago the Yellow Jackets were coming off a 6-7 season and were picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal behind Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina. The critics said that defenses inside and outside the conference had finally "caught up" to Johnson's scheme.

Georgia Tech started 6-0 and was ranked as high as No. 12 before injuries and a lack of depth caught up with it. Georgia Tech stumbled down the stretch to finish at 8-5 but did manage a tie for second in the division.

Last season could have been -- and Johnson believes should have been -- much better.

There was a 24-21 loss at Virginia when Georgia Tech, the nation's No. 2 rushing team, was held to a season-low 296 total yards. A week later, Miami held Georgia Tech to 211 yards in a 24-7 loss on the road. On a Thursday night in Atlanta, Georgia Tech's defense had no answer for Virginia Tech's massive quarterback, Logan Thomas, and lost 37-26.

After a 31-17 loss to Georgia, the SEC East champion, the season ended with a disappointing 30-27 overtime loss to Utah in the Sun Bowl.

"We had our chances to turn it into a pretty decent season but we just didn't make the plays when we needed to make them," said Johnson. "No excuses."

But there were some bright spots along the way. Clemson was undefeated and ranked No. 6 when the Tigers came to Atlanta. It was never a contest as Georgia Tech rolled up 443 yards and won 31-17. Clemson would go on to win the ACC championship but that game ended any hopes the Tigers had about pursuing a national title.

Given the way Georgia Tech played down the stretch of 2011, the critics are back and Johnson again has something to prove. But this appears to be his deepest and most athletic team since he came to Georgia Tech: Four of five starters return on the offensive line, which will be the best Georgia Tech has had since Johnson arrived.

"We've been working for a few years trying to get deeper and more athletic," Johnson said. "I would say we've made pretty good progress."

Quarterback Tevin Washington finished fourth in the ACC in rushing last season. He had 2,638 yards of total offense and was responsible for 25 touchdowns, the third-highest total in Georgia Tech history. Johnson also has some change of pace options at quarterback with Synjyn Days and redshirt freshman Vad Lee. But those quarterbacks are also going to have to complete some passes to keep defenses honest.

Georgia Tech is a running team. During the past four seasons Georgia Tech has led the nation in rushing, averaging 301.98 yards per game. That's not going to change.

But last season the Yellow Jackets didn't even have the THREAT of a passing game. Only Army (97) and Navy (135) threw fewer passes than Georgia Tech's 167 attempts in 2011. The Yellow Jackets had a big, physical receiver in Stephen Hill who may go fairly high in the NFL Draft. They just could not get him the ball. That has to change. For Georgia Tech to be effective, it has to make occasional big plays in the passing game against a defense that is preoccupied with the option. They did it in 2009 with Demaryius Thomas, who had 46 catches for 1,154 yards (25.1 yards per catch).

"With our offense there are going to be opportunities in the passing game," said Johnson. "We have to do a better job taking advantage of those opportunities."

If Georgia Tech is going to challenge in the ACC Coastal, it also has to get better on defense. A year ago Georgia Tech gave up 26.1 points per game and at times simply could not get its defense off the field. Opponents converted 42.4 percent on third down (83rd nationally).

"What we found was that we were putting our defense in third-and-short way too much," said Al Groh, Georgia Tech's third-year defensive coordinator. "We have to do a better job on first and second down. That's our challenge."

Georgia Tech was still in the Top 25 in time of possession (31:55) last season but during the Yellow Jackets' ACC championship year of 2009 they held the ball for almost 34 minutes per game and finished No. 3 nationally.

"For us it's about getting the defense off the field so that we can get one or two more possessions per game," said Johnson. "The number of possessions you play can make a big difference."

Georgia Tech will have to have the answers to these questions very quickly. The Yellow Jackets will open the season with Virginia Tech on Labor Day night in Blacksburg. Since the ACC went to divisional play in 2005, either Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech has won the Coastal Division every season. Yeah, it's a big game.

"We're going to have to play them [Virginia Tech] sooner or later so let's just see if we can get ready and play them right out of the gate," said Johnson. "It should be interesting."

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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