Personnel, not plays, responsible for offensive woes

Photo by Allie Ghisson

Can you really call an issue an “elephant in the room” when one party in the “discussion” is constantly making attempts to start a discourse but the other refuses to engage? The power dynamic between GT football coaches and the fans that come to spectate the sum of their efforts on Saturday afternoons is one that requires no explanations from on high detailing the logic behind coaching decisions. That being said, when there’s a banner proudly hanging from the rafters of a fraternity house with “FIRE PAUL JOHNSON” boldly emblazoned on its front, there is clearly a conversation that needs to be had. Many armchair athletic directors have qualms with the team that are relatively reactionary and are most likely just parroting whatever hot take made it to the top of the Tech subreddit this week, but there’s one central question that even the most casual Tech fan has most likely asked themselves at some point in the past few years: why does Tech still run the triple option?

For those who have been living under a rock, the flexbone triple option — also known as the hottest new CFB trend of 1968 — is the bread and butter of Tech’s offense…and is run literally nowhere else in America outside of service academies. The formation hinges on the production of the three backfielders: the standard quarterback (QB) who takes the snap and acts as the general of the play and two halfbacks; a B-back (BB) responsible for dives up the middle and an A-back (AB) generally used on outside run routes and on the pitch.

The constant shuffling of possession between these backs creates a slow, methodical scheme that focuses on incremental rushing gains stretched over long drives, aiming to (1) control time of possession in order to rest the defense and reduce the amount of scoring opportunities the opponent has, (2) consistently make marginal gains by capitalizing on the situational missteps of their opponents, and (3) hide the fact that the athletes executing the systems generally stack up worse than their competition in the typical “football” metrics (e.g. size, lateral speed, acceleration). In short, even Tech’s football team tries to outsmart the competition as opposed to outmuscling them. This is all fine in theory, but with three straight losses behind them prior to the BGSU game and more almost certainly to come as the weeks march on, everyone wants to know why the the triple option isn’t working and why the Jackets insist on running it.

Like most physics proofs over the centuries, the easiest way to build an argument as it pertains to sports is to make a definitive statement based on a single broad assumption and build the rest of the model from there: the reason the Jackets the triple option is solely because Paul Johnson is their coach, and the reason it is not working is because they do not have athletes with enough talent in the necessary skill pools to execute it — at least right now.

The second half of this statement is fairly obvious, and in some ways, is one of the biggest problems with the triple option; recruiting players to run this system is different than recruiting for a ground-n-pound or aerial assault offense (and the first rule of the tautology club is the first rule of the tautology club). Tech’s A-back and B-back  recruits need to be good enough at their specialty route paths and passblocking to be flexible, but talent like that is rarely content in a non-workhorse role that limits their ability to showcase their skill for NFL scouts, and the QB needs to be run-first and athletic while staying cerebral and capable of making the proper read on the pitch/keep — otherwise, two-thirds of the offense becomes moot when faced with a competent edge rush unit.

Credit where credit is due: CPJ has a knack for recruiting and polishing his halfbacks, and over the years, the Jackets have enjoyed the fruits of his labor through one of the winningest eras in Tech history. That being said, finding the “right” quarterback for the triple option is extremely difficult, let alone selling the prospect of being blasted as a runner every time the pocket is abandoned to some highly-rated recruit. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall is a phenomenal athlete, and if returning 1000-yard B-back KirVonte Benson had remained healthy, it’s not unrealistic to think that the two over them would have paired with A-back Qua Searcy for a successful rebound season capped with a bowl win. Unfortunately, what Marshall has in raw talent he seems to lackin football IQ, and watching him maddeningly refuse to pitch when necessary — or worse, miss an open AB streaking down the side — doesn’t pair well with an inaccurate arm and losing record.

Just a few years ago, the triple option steered Tech to an Orange Bowl game and ACC championship game. It would appear that the right personnel and a little bit of luck is all it takes to make the system work, and it’s entirely possible that may be true. However, if the system designed to “steal” wins off teams with higher mean talent is so inflexible that it fails to work against those with lower mean talent, an argument can be made that the lack of consistency makes implementing such a system pointless in the first place when the core of most rosters is only operating together for a year or two at maximum. Of course, since Paul Johnson has already been labeled as the reason that the triple option is being implemented here, it’s only fair to also make the assumption that his in-depth knowledge of the system far exceeds that of those spectating, and the micro-adjustments to his game scripts and year-to-year playbook reflect this in a manner imperceptible to the common fan. This conclusion, that Tech is trapped in a system paradoxically consistent with the right protocol but with high variance dependent on said protocol, is frustrating on the “down” years…and generally results in some loudmouthed criticism of the man responsible.

It is easy to make excuses for Tech’s inability to draw talent in when recruiting against UGa, Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, UF, FSU, and South Carolina within 200 miles. The athletic department still hasn’t finished paying Paul Hewitt’s albatross of a contract that was bought out in 2011, and Tech has been out-spent by Georgia State the past two years on recruiting — and that program is less than a decade old! There are many external factors to the team that make Tech an undesirable destination for blue-chip recruits — and before a critic exclaims, “but Stanford can do it!”, he ought to remember that they have 80-plus majors to Tech’s 30. But even with that all taken into consideration, the triple option is at best a double-edged sword in the recruiting process, and at worst the final nail in the coffin that buries any hope we have for CFB relevance in the decade to come. By operating a different system and looking for different styles of athletes, Tech is theoretically looking at a different pool of high school students to bring in and mold into CPJ’s vision of perfection through marginal gains and efficiency. Unfortunately, there just are not  enough kids out there that are good enough to play collegiate football, and even though Tech’s focus is on different aspects of a player, the individuals on their radar are more likely than not similar to all the other Power 5 programs, and without a good sell of system, quality of life, ease of classes, or fun, there isn’t a lot going for the Jackets.

So what is the answer? Blow it all up, finally fire CPJ and start from scratch? Leave the triple option back in the 20th century where it belongs? Well, eventually. Moving forward, it’s unrealistic to assume that the school’s attractiveness to recruits will suddenly trend upwards, and ultimately the cycle of mediocrity will need to be broken through a culture change. For Tech to start competing with other Power Five conference programs, it will need to adapt and grow in every facet — including the offensive scheme. Change does not happen overnight, and the football program cannot suddenly snap its fingers and get more coaches and scouts without receiving the necessary funding from the administration. The money has to flow in for the results to come out on Saturday, and more than likely, the change will come once CPJ finally hangs it up for good. So why not pull a Philadelphia 76ers-style “tank” by taking a chance on unproven young assets to go ahead and get the retooling process started?

In short, Tech is broke. The Jackets run the triple option because of Paul Johnson, and he is kept around because he is the best option the team has, both competitive and financially. A buyout would be too costly, and even if that factor was excluded, without the proper structure in place for the next man up, the cycle will only begin again with suboptimal athletes for whatever the new system is. Tech needs a complete overhaul of its budgeting for athletics and to seriously reconsider the standards that admissions sets for Tech’s athletes if the Jackets are to be considered a serious athletic contender again.

Until then, Paul Johnson is not the hero Tech deserves, but he is the one they can afford right now.