When Johnson first arrived in Atlanta, he often dismissed the notion that his offense was a strict triple option.
“That would be like saying a multiple-I formation team runs the ‘dive play’ or off tackle play,’” Johnson said in 2008.
UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning half-jokingly pointed to 100 different formations that Johnson has run over the years. The option is a central component, although it could be the trap, counter, G, load, lead, arc, double or triple options, to name a few.
“We can go back 6-8-10 years with Paul and they’ve really only changed a couple of things,” Koenning said last week. “They’ve got a lot of offense and he’s the guru king daddy of it… You don’t exactly the scheme you’re going to get because he’s got so many little wrinkles but you know you’re going to get the option.”
Last November, Georgia Tech posted 68 points – the most-ever scored at Kenan Stadium – and rolled up 588 total yards of offense in its 18-point win over UNC.
The Tar Heels spent its bye week last week preparing for the Yellow Jackets only to watch a new scheme unfold against the Blue Devils.
According to UNC head coach Larry Fedora, Georgia Tech set up in a diamond formation – a pistol set with three running backs on both sides and behind the quarterback – “probably 50 percent of the time” in churning out 469 total yards of offense.
Red-shirt sophomore quarterback Vad Lee completed 8-of-16 passes for 125 yards, four touchdowns and an interception while also rushing for 76 yards and a touchdown.
“You’ve been working on everything for the triple option and now you have to slow down a little bit and go back and make sure you cover the new offense that they’re running also,” Fedora said. “I think Vad Lee enables them to do both. That’s the tough thing about him.”
Senior defensive tackle Tim Jackson, who missed last season’s game due to a knee injury, isn’t convinced that UNC will see a new-look offense this weekend in Atlanta.
“I feel like they did it just because they could, honestly,” Jackson said of Georgia Tech’s scheme against Duke. “They actually came out in another formation – a pistol set, full house diamond formation, whatever you want to call it. Another wrinkle for you to prepare for. I’m not sure if they’re even going to run that against us, but it just gives you another reason to prepare for them, another 30 minutes you have to spend watching film for a different formation.”
The key to limiting the Yellow Jackets’ offense is to limit their third down conversion rate, according to Koenning. In 2012, Georgia Tech converted 56.1 percent of its third downs in its seven wins, but only managed a 35.1 conversion rate in its seven losses.
The Yellow Jackets have converted 57.1 percent of its third downs (36-of-63) in four consecutive wins over North Carolina, including a 9-of-15 mark last season. Georgia Tech has also hit on 75.0 percent of its fourth down attempts (3-of-4) against UNC during that winning streak.
The fundamentals in defending the option haven’t changed. It’s still assignment football with a discipline requirement attached.
“One thing I’ve learned about Georgia Tech’s offense over the years is they do well adjusting mid-drive,’ Jackson said. “They’ll find out what a guy is doing, they’ll find out if he’s undisciplined in his job and then attack him.
“Every play they’re reading somebody different. So one play they might be reading me and what I do. Next play they might be reading a defensive end. Next play they might be reading a safety to see if he comes up so they can throw the ball. So you have to do your job every play.”
Lee’s arm may allow Johnson increased flexibility in his play calling, but the foundation of his offense remains intact. The Tar Heels failed to win 1-on-1 battles in space last season and the only thing that ultimately stopped the Yellow Jackets was the game clock.
There is optimism around the Kenan Football Center, however, that UNC’s defense is better suited to stop Johnson’s multi-dimensional offense this season.
“We’ll try to play fast and hard,” Koenning said. “The last two weeks we’ve really played harder than we did at any time last year, so hopefully we’ll continue to do that.”