Paul Johnson doesn’t go around making wild guarantees.
He’s measured, prepared and precise, like the spread-option offense he’s run for 21 years as a head coach — the last 10 at Georgia Tech.
He believes in his system, what it takes to win and, most importantly, his team. He expressed his belief in all three on Wednesday at the 2018 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C.
“What constitutes winning and losing? I think that you have to have a system that you believe in and the players believe in,” said Johnson, who was joined at the ACC’s annual media event by senior co-captains TaQuon Marshall and Brant Mitchell. “You have to have good players and you have to be fortunate. So much of it is staying healthy, getting the right bounce, getting the right thing.
“This will be my 22nd year as a head coach and each year you learn something,” he added. “I think that certainly as you go through expectations, a lot of things change. I think that on our level of football, sometimes it’s turned into a little bit of an arms race and there’s a lot of different factors that go into it, but the bottom line, I think, to win football games hasn’t changed that much. You need to be able to run the ball and win the turnover battle and play good defense. If you do that, be sound in the kicking game, you’ve got a chance to win games. It hasn’t changed much. We’ve had some success. Certainly some years have been better than others but I’m looking forward to this year. I think we’ve got a good group of seniors, a good nucleus returning. We’ve got a really tough schedule again but I’m anxious to get out there and get started and see what we can do.”
The Yellow Jackets hope the biggest change comes at the bottom line — improving on last year’s 5-6 season. With the start of fall camp less than a month away, they’ve already made some major changes to achieve that goal. Marshall and Mitchell eagerly discussed the atmosphere and attitude.
“We have a team that’s going to be very hungry going into this season,” said Marshall. “We have an experienced offense, we have a new [defensive] coordinator (Nate Woody), with some guys on defense that are going to be hungry. They’re learning the system and they’re going to fly around. That’s something we definitely tried to let everyone know.”
A preseason candidate for the Maxwell Award (“America’s College Player of the Year”), Marshall is anything but satisfied with that nomination or his record-setting 2017 season. In his first as a starter, he ranked in the top 30 nationally in scoring (9.5 ppg, 11th), rushing touchdowns (17, 12th), total touchdowns (17, 15th), points responsible for (14.9 ppg, 24th) and rushing (104.2 ypg, 25th). He also set a school for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,146), while his 17 rushing touchdowns were the third-most ever by a GT quarterback in a season. Still, he’s determined to prove that he’s grown as a quarterback.
“This offseason, I’ve really been working on the pass game. Last year I struggled a lot hitting some of the guys that were wide open, just throwing the ball in general,” said Marshall. “So that’s one of the main things that I’ve worked on this spring and one of the things we’ve been working on a lot this summer. That’s one of the main focuses that I’ve had going into fall camp.”
The offensive focus is on what’s coming back (eight returning starters, nine if you count fifth-year senior offensive lineman Andrew Marshall, who missed the entire 2017 campaign due to injury), rather than what’s not (notably, leading receiver Ricky Jeune, now a member of the Los Angeles Rams).
“We have a lot of playmakers on the offensive end,” Marshall said. “I’m really excited to see what the guys are going to bring to the table this year. I’m just going to put the ball in their hands and let them work. I’m really excited about that.”
Equally exciting, and a big a point of emphasis at the Kickoff, was the new-look 3-4 defense that Woody has brought to The Flats.
“I have a lot of confidence in Nate. I’ve known him through the years, all the way back to when I was coaching at Georgia Southern and he was at Wofford College,” said Johnson. “I’ve watched from afar for the last few years. He’s been very successful at Appalachian State. I felt like we needed a shake-up on defense a little bit. I wanted to be more aggressive and simpler so that the guys could utilize their speed and quickness and could play fast. I think it’s important no matter what you do to be able to play fast, and hopefully he will bring that.”
Mitchell, one of five returning defensive starters, stated that the unit now is ready to bring it this fall, having learned well this spring.
“There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the program. People really want to know what the new defense is going to be about and how much it’s going to help the success of Georgia Tech this coming season,” he said. “It’s an attack-style defense. We’re going to be moving a lot more. I think our defense is a little bit more unpredictable than it has been in the past, which will help us against the offenses that we go against. I think it’s going to help our guys just kind of let loose and play fast and show how athletic we are. Just go out there and play as hard as we can.
“Coming into this season, the guys are extremely energetic. Guys are buying in. We believe in it,” he added. “We’ve been introduced to it. Now it’s time to start translating the things that we’ve learned from past defenses and bringing it over to what we’re running now. The transition is going to be a challenge. Obviously, there will be a learning curve. But we’re excited about it and we’re excited what it’s going to do to our opponents.”
As far as what is expected from the Jackets, the ACC’s preseason predictions come out early next week and Georgia Tech likely will be in the familiar position of looking up. Marshall’s not really concerned about what others have to say.
“I honestly don’t know what the media thinks, what their expectations are, but as a team captain, I know what I expect from my teammates, I know what they expect from me and we know what we expect out of this season,” he said. “I don’t think we were really trying to change any minds or persuade any people in the media to jump on our bandwagon. We were just letting them know where we thought our goals were and the goal we’re trying to reach by the end of the season.”
There is precedent on Tech’s side. In 2014, the Jackets bounced back from a 3-9 to go 9-4 and win the Orange Bowl. That summer, the Jackets were picked for fifth in the Coastal in the preseason poll.
Additionally, last season was only the fourth sub-.500 campaign of Johnson’s 21-year head-coaching career. Following each of the previous three, his teams bounced back to win at least eight games the following year.
Mitchell’s hoping history repeats.
“I think everybody has noticed the pattern the past few seasons. We’ve been kind of on a rollercoaster ride since my freshman year,” he said. “We started out with a 3-9 season and then bounced back with a 9-4, then went back down to a losing season last year. So everybody’s kind of recognizing the pattern and hopefully we’re going to have a successful season this year and have another winning one.
“The full expectation is to open people’s’ eyes and make them realize that we have a very talented team,” he added. “I don’t think I said anything that opened people’s’ eyes (at the ACC Kickoff). I talked about our new defense and what I expect from it, what we expect as a team. We’ll just have to find out how it works. I think the message has been pretty clear and people understand what we’re about.”