Dec. 3, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Florida State last played Georgia Tech two years ago, yet the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator is familiar with the Yellow Jackets’ unique offense, and he knows its engine and on-board computer – quarterback Justin Thomas and head coach Paul Johnson – like neighbors.
Charles Kelly coached at Tech from 2006-12, and ran point as the Jackets recruited Thomas out of Prattville, Ala., and away from the University of Alabama, where he first made a verbal commitment.
Kelly served as Tech’s interim defensive coordinator over the final eight games of the 2012 season, after Al Groh was let go.
The time spent on The Flats working for – and against — Johnson could impact the way Tech’s head coach builds his game plan for Saturday night’s ACC Championship Game against FSU. In his last five years at Tech, all spent working under Johnson, Kelly was on the defensive staff.
Johnson and has offensive staff typically build a game plan that is tailored first and foremost to what the Jackets do well, and then fine-tunes against the defensive strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of an upcoming opponent.
“Possibly. But we don’t play against ourselves very much [in practice], other than in the spring,” Johnson said when asked if Kelly’s relationship with Tech might impact his planning and execution. “Charles . . . finished out the  season [as defensive coordinator], but we really weren’t playing against each other.
“Where you’d really find out is in the spring, and even then we go against different stuff.”
During the season, Tech’s offense practices against a “scout team” defense designed to mimic that of the next opponent. Rarely do the Jackets play their base defense against Tech’s offense other than in spring practices. Kelly wasn’t the Tech DC during a spring season, although he was on several defensive staffs.
Then again, in spring practice Johnson doesn’t game-plan, nor scheme, and he makes no in-practice adjustments on the fly as he does in games.
Kelly left Tech after the 2012 season, when, Johnson said, “They offered him a lot more money, and a long-term contract.” He coached linebackers last year as FSU won the national championship with one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.
Last winter, after FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt took the same job at Georgia, ‘Noles head coach Jimbo Fisher elevated Kelly to DC. According to multiple reports, that brought a raise from $275,000 to about $500,000 this year.
Kelly will share unique insights to help FSU defenders prepare for the Jackets.
“It gives you a lot of confidence,” FSU defensive lineman Derrick Mitchell told reporters. “You trust everything he said because you know he was around it for so long. He knows just how coach Paul Johnson thinks. He knows how the option works. He knows all the tricks and schemes to it.”
Time might tell if Kelly gained an edge through extensive yet detached exposure to Tech’s offense.
Really, even if FSU slows down a unit that ranks No. 3 nationally while averaging 333.8 rushing yards per game after putting 399 on Georgia last Saturday, it may be difficult to determine whether the presence of Kelly will have been more important than FSU’s over-flowing inventory of top-shelf players.
The Seminoles ranked at or near the top of many defensive metrics last season. In 2014, they have not exactly been an iron wall while allowing an average of 371 total yards per game (ranking 47th), and 145.8 rushing yards (No. 43).
“Charles is a really good coach, and a good person. I’m sure he’ll have a good plan,” Johnson said. “He’s a hard worker. We’re not going to change what we do because of Charles. If he can teach his guys more about [Tech’s offense] in three days than we can in 12 weeks, they’re going to beat us anyway.
“So, we’ll go play. He can adjust, I can adjust. We’ll see how it goes.”
Florida State sent three defenders to the All-ACC first team unit selected by writers in end Mario Edwards, tackle Eddie Goldman and safety Jalen Ramsey.
The ‘Noles rank first in the ACC and tied for seventh nationally in red zone defense. They have allowed scores on 70.5 of those occasions, including a modest 21 touchdown and 10 field goals on 44 possessions.
Thomas could have been their teammate.
He originally committed to Alabama, but over time he and his family became concerned that the Tide might switch him from quarterback.
Once he upped with Tech, on Dec. 13 of 2011 without having made an official campus visit and instead visiting once unofficially when he was in the Atlanta area for a family reunion, he said that he had considered the Jackets, the ‘Noles and LSU as his most likely landing spots.
He wanted to play quarterback, and Kelly kept telling him that at Tech he would.
“He recruited me pretty hard. He was a good guy. He always was truthful,” Thomas said. “He was good with my family. [Alabama was] going to give me a shot to play quarterback, but if anything changed down the line where it wasn’t working out, other positions would have been open.
“If I was to change positions it would have been on offense.”
Thomas has done just fine at quarterback.
He leads the Jackets with 861 rushing yards, has scored five touchdowns, and completed 50.3 percent of his passes for 1,460 yards, 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
His pass efficiency rating of 154.31 would lead the ACC and rank No. 13 nationally if he had enough attempts (81-of-161) to qualify. His average of 18.02 yards per completion would lead the nation, too.
Most importantly, Thomas operates the option as Johnson prefers.
“I trust Justin. Does he do everything right all the time? No, but nobody does,” the Tech head coach said. “I trust him to run the offense . . . we’re not to the point where he’s, ‘Check with me,’ and he gets to call whatever he wants. Could he get there? Possibly, before he finishes.
“I think he can execute everything we ask him to do. I don’t have to not call a play because of him . . . Mechanically, he’s improved a ton.”
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher suggested this week that having Kelly run his defense is not likely to provide a huge boost against Johnson’s stylized attack so he took another step long to prepare for the Jackets.
The ‘Noles last played Tech in the 2012 ACC Championship Game, a 21-15 FSU win that was not cemented until a last-minute interception.
He contracted an early-season opponent, The Citadel, to mimic Tech even though the Jackets won’t meet the FSU in the regular season until next season, in Bobby Dodd Stadium. FSU beat the FCS foe, 37-12, on Sept. 6.
Never mind that the ACC media picked Tech to finish fifth in the Coastal division. Fisher apparently had a hunch, and felt that The Bulldogs’ offense would give his team an early look of sorts at the Jackets. He considers the offenses similar.
“If they’re not, they’re first cousins,” Fisher explained to seminoles.com. “That was one of the reasons I put The Citadel on the schedule.”
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