ATLANTA — When the head coach first said it, a shock wave went rippling through the team.
“You know, I just want to see some intensity and some fire and some fight,” the 52-year-old leader said of his squad several weeks ago. “We’re just not nasty. We’re too nice.”
Those words, uttered Sept. 5 in the belly of Bobby Dodd Stadium may have caught some off guard, particularly considering that Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets had just won their first game of the year and did so in moderately dominating fashion with a 37-17 drubbing of Jacksonville State.
But Johnson, the second-year head coach at Georgia Tech, did say them. And he meant them.
A two-time national champion at Georgia Southern, Johnson had long understood the types of characteristics that made up the best of teams. At the time, his most recent program did not seem to fully possess them. And as of Sunday night, it still did not.
The full fire, intensity and focus Johnson wanted to see two months ago is coming, he said, but it isn’t there in overwhelming numbers.
“Well, with some guys (it is there),” he said on a teleconference Sunday, “With others, not so much maybe.
“Certainly, there’s some guys who have taken on the attitude. I think it’s important to everybody to finish out the (season), and some guys have different ways of showing it. I’d love to see more of our guys more intense and more into it. It’s a constant struggle.”
The Yellow Jackets are hoping to finish the season with by securing their goal of playing in the ACC championship game and winning their subsequent bowl game.
To those who have not heard Johnson speak before, it may come as a shock to hear these latest words come from the man in charge of an 8-1 team that is fully in control of seeing that conference championship destiny come to fruition.
But even if some fans and the like don’t understand it, the players do, and in many ways, they agree with him.
“It’s just a mental mindset; there’s nothing the coaches can do about it. It’s on us,” defensive lineman Jason Peters said earlier this season.
In the weeks since what Johnson felt was a lackluster second-half performance against Jacksonville State, the Yellow Jackets have gone on to outscore opponents 280-205, hold two opponents to a pair of second-half field goals and rattle off a six-game winning streak.
If anything, the team has finally discovered how to play its best football late in games. That is perhaps the best thing this team is beginning to have in common with some of Johnson’s more storied Georgia Southern teams, he said.
“There is a great desire to win with some of our guys,” Johnson said. “You know, you see them competing. That might be part of the deal with the second half. Maybe they’re playing a little harder. They get lit up, and I don’t know.
“I think it’s pride.”
Following a halftime tie at 28 Saturday night, the Yellow Jackets went on to blow out Vanderbilt for a 56-31 victory. The fourth consecutive game in which a decidedly different Georgia Tech team emerged from the locker room to put up a banner second-half performance, the showing has had critics and supporters alike praising Johnson’s knack for making adjustments at the half.
But to hear him and his assistants tell it, Saturday’s adjustments were simply the product of getting defenders to tackle better and very minute adjustments offensively.
“If you look at Saturday night, we were pretty much balanced (offensively),” Johnson said. “We scored 28 points in each half.”
As Georgia Tech enters its final three games, Johnson said Sunday he doesn’t necessarily see any similarities in the way his Yellow Jackets are playing as compared to his more successful past teams.
It is much the same response he gave that half-joyous, half-somber celebration that one afternoon in early September.
“It was two different deals,” Johnson said following the Jacksonville State win. “At Georgia Southern, we had a lot of tradition with winning and it just built, and at Navy, well, those guys played scared. Because they weren’t all these high recruits and they weren’t this and they weren’t that, and they will fight you to the end. I mean, they would dig down and they would fight.
“And, we’re (Georgia Tech) talented, but we’ve got to get the dig down and fight part.”
That may be a work in progress, but it is progress that may be starting to take positive shape.