Mississippi State’s spread option has roots in Tech’s scheme

ATLANTA — When watching Saturday’s Georgia Tech-Mississippi State game, Yellow Jackets fans may see some plays, routes and patterns that look a little familiar.

That’s because, offensively, Mississippi State is one of the few teams around the country that has begun to adopt the type of scheme that has been tearing up the turf at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the past year.

With its spread option shotgun format, the Bulldogs are running a system similar to the type of offense that Paul Johnson brought to Georgia Tech from Navy a year ago.

“The thing that’s a misnomer, and I’ve said it before, what they’re doing is not that different than what we’re doing,” Johnson said. “Because they’ve got all the receivers, and they’ve got this and that and they’re in the gun, (people think it’s different).”

The Bulldogs feature their own set of counter, pitch and quarterback keeper plays — staples in Johnson’s system. But unlike the Yellow Jackets, their quarterback begins in a different spot.

Georgia Tech places its starter, Josh Nesbitt, under center to draw an immediate snap before making a decision to run, pitch or hand off. In more traditional spread systems like Mississippi State’s, the quarterback is flanked a few yards behind the center.

“Certainly if you’re in the gun, it can make you more effective in the quick-passing game,” Johnson said. “But to each their own. That’s why guys do different things. If I thought it was a huge advantage to being in the gun, that’s where we’d be. I just don’t think so.”

There’s a distinct reason why the Bulldogs’ system favors Johnson’s design that he has been running for 12 seasons now as a head coach. That’s because some of Johnson’s ideas and input went into putting it together.

Previous to landing his first head coaching gig this year, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen was an assistant under Urban Meyer at Utah and later at Florida.

At both stops, he and Meyer leaned on Johnson to get a better understanding of what he was doing with his option offense that made him so successful at Navy and Georgia Southern. They wanted to discover ways to put similar wrinkles into their own option package that few teams were running near the start of this decade.

“They would call me to bounce things off me and ask me how we did this, that or the other,” said Johnson, who has known Meyer for several years.

With the Gators and the spread, Mullen won two national titles as the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He also molded current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith into the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in 2005 and helped established current Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s career.

It is clear Mullen and Meyer’s take on the offense has had success in the short time Mullen has worked with it. That is why spirits are high in Starkville, Miss.

“They’re a running football team, and a lot of the blocking schemes and a lot of things are very similar (to Georgia Tech’s),” Johnson said. “They look a lot like Florida.”

Mississippi State’s unit is averaging more than 350 yards of total offense this season. While the Bulldogs pass for 151.5 yards per game — 26 yards more than Georgia Tech — they are led by a running back who is averaging 107 yards rushing.

Senior running back Anthony Dixon had the best afternoon of any Mississippi State player last year in Atlanta when he rushed for 94 yards in the Bulldogs’ 38-7 loss. During that same contest, Mississippi State allowed 500 yards of total offense.

Although similar, Mullen understands the distinct differences that set the Yellow Jackets’ offense apart from his. For that reason, he knows how great the challenge will be for his defense to face it.

“When you have one week to prepare for it, it becomes somewhat of an unconventional offense from what your players are used to seeing,” Mullen said. “That’s how the spread was a couple of years ago, and that’s how his offense is now.”