ATLANTA — Exactly one year ago this week, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson stood in front of a large luncheon crowd and publicly announced his plans for employing a more proficient passing offense in future seasons.
It was during a Chick-fil-A Bowl function and drew some curious looks.
Deviating slightly from his run-first and largely run-only philosophy, that key addition to his now broadening offensive package would make his team even stronger, he predicted.
It may now be safe to say, he knew exactly what he was talking about.
As the Yellow Jackets prepare for their Jan. 5 date in the BCS Orange Bowl against Big Ten power Iowa, statistics indicate just how expanded their success and their offense have become since Johnson redeveloped this passing fancy.
“No, I never thought about breaking records (before the season) or none of that,” Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt said.
Perhaps he should have.
The junior is less than 14 points shy of tying former Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton’s single-season school record of a 175.0 passing efficiency rating. Currently, Nesbitt sits second all-time with a 156.8 rating.
While he may not actually surpass Hamilton for the single-season mark, Nesbitt does still has a strong chance to rival Hamilton’s career mark of 145.0 before his time at Georgia Tech is done.
Sure, passing efficiency may not be the most attractive of passing statistics, but all season, Johnson has called the rating the most important and the most vital to his offense.
“When we throw it, we mean it. It’s usually going downfield for a bunch of yards,” Johnson told reporters in Macon in June at the Peach State Pigskin Preview. “We’re not going to complete that high a percentage of those throws, but that doesn’t mean our pass efficiency number can’t be really good. And that’s what we need to concentrate on is our efficiency number.”
With that in mind, Nesbitt entered the season fully intent on making his long passes to receivers and A-backs — as Johnson has occasionally put it — “hurt.”
For the most part, that has happened.
Of Georgia Tech’s 67 plays of 20 yards or more this season, Nesbitt has completed 29 passes. Of those, 10 have gone for touchdowns, including five for more than 70-yards.
“He’s being really patient and just trusting the line and trusting the receivers to get open,” said receiver Demaryius Thomas, who sits just 49 yards shy of setting a single-season program receiving record. “I know when he first started, he had pressure on him a lot and most of the time he would just throw it away.
“But now, he’s been sitting in the pocket better, or he’ll get away and get out of the pocket to get it to a receiver or an A-back to make a play. I feel like he’s very comfortable now.”
Last season, with Georgia Tech more significantly entrenched in its run game, Nesbitt passed for just 808 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Not only has he more than doubled those yards with nearly 1,700 this season, but he has quintupled his passing touchdowns.
Although the Yellow Jackets are still heralded for the running nature of their spread option offense — they rank second nationally in rushing average this season — the passing game has seen its role grow this year. Part of that is because of time and maturity in Johnson’s unique scheme, Nesbitt said.
“Being in the offense for this long and playing at this speed, you just get used to it,” Nesbitt said.
So when was the moment he knew that he was completely confident in everything Johnson wanted him to do?
“Jacksonville State. This year,” Nesbitt said.
Referring to Georgia Tech’s season opener, he said that after having dealt with Johnson’s entire offense all last year, it helped him begin to see the field much like his coach.
“I had a feeling for what Coach wanted to do in every aspect of the game,” Nesbitt said.
Johnson said he is beginning to see the same thing.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Johnson said. “The more he’s played, the more leeway I’ve given him. That’s why he has the ball in his hands a lot in clutch time.”
Look no further for evidence of that than Sept. 24 against North Carolina when the Yellow Jackets churned out a game-ending eight-minute scoring drive.
Or look to Oct. 10, when they came up with a late-fourth quarter play for Nesbitt to weave his way toward a 22-yard touchdown run to beat Florida State.
Then, there was also the next week, when, in a close home contest against higher-ranked Virginia Tech, Nesbitt broke down the sideline for a 39-yard touchdown run with minutes remaining to help the Yellow Jackets pull one of the biggest upsets in school history.
And finally, one can even look at Georgia Tech’s next home game, when Johnson let the quarterback hold onto the football for a dive to the inside to convert a key overtime fourth down. One play later, Nesbitt jogged in for a game-winning 3-yard score.
Of course, each of those moments were defined by runs — Georgia Tech’s bread-and-butter — but they illustrate the much broader point that Nesbitt understands what his offense is supposed to do and when.
“It is little things that people don’t really see but are really important in the passing game,” Roddy Jones said of Nesbitt’s success. “It just takes a lot of reps and a lot of talking. If we’re messing up in practice we’ll come back and say, ‘Hey, this is what I saw.’ Or Josh will say, ‘This is what I saw.’ And you come to a compromise.”
While those who see Nesbitt away from the field may not see a very talkative, impassioned individual, offensive lineman Cord Howard knows his quarterback has another side, too.
“Josh is a warrior, he’s full of heart,” senior offensive lineman Cord Howard said. “He’s really competitive and has a refuse-to-lose attitude. He’s not one who talks a lot, but he plays. And he has all my respect for that.”